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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, 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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Sunday, May 1
Do you want to be made well?
Preacher: The Rev. Andy Lobban
Jesus' interaction with a man who has been sick for 38 years is telling. When we take the time to ask another if he/she wants to be made well, we leave room for true humanity to shine through. This is the sort of dialogue that enables us to see and treat others fully as human beings rather than objects
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Jesus’ interaction with a man who has been sick for 38 years is telling.  When we take the time to ask another if he/she wants to be made well, we leave room for true humanity to shine through.   This is the sort of dialogue that enables us to see and treat others fully as human beings rather than objects.

Sunday, April 24
A New Creation
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I heard a loud voice… saying, “the home of God is among mortals” (Revelation 21).
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  1. On this magnificent spring day, at the center of the waters of ocean and bay, surrounded by the rose gardens of Grace Cathedral, Earth Day weekend continues to unfold. This morning I want you to entertain an idea, a possibility. It’s hard to simply put this into words, but it begins in the conviction that there is so much more to what is happening at this moment, right here, than we consciously realize. What if the new creation, the new heaven and new earth vividly proclaimed by John of Patmos lies immediately close at hand?

Henry David Thoreau dedicated every day of his life to watching how God appears to us in nature. In his Journal he writes, “We are receiving our portion of the Infinite.”[1] In his book Walden, “Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”[2]

The American philosopher and psychologist William James describes this in different terms. In 1901 he delivered the Gifford Lectures in Scotland that later would become a book called The Varieties of Religious Experiences. He describes in detail mystical experiences using historical and contemporary examples. These accounts include men and women from different religions and even non-believers. They range from the ordinary to the peculiar, from the terrifying to the ecstatic.
As a young man James suffered from a debilitating illness and deep despair. In the book he anonymously includes a mystical experience that he himself had when he felt saved by something beyond himself. James does not wish to endorse one particular religion or another but he does conclude that we are connected to what he calls “the more.” At certain moments in our life we become conscious of a higher part of ourselves which is, “conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of [us].”[3]

From his study of others and his own experience James believes that when everything goes to pieces in our life we can be saved through, “the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.” There is something, someone, absolutely near to us and yet often unknown to us – the Holy One.

  1. Why do we almost inevitably fail to hear this voice? The twentieth century composer John Cage (1912-1992) had a theory. He based it on the great religious thinkers and mystics who influenced him. From the Zen teacher Huang Po, Cage learned that by moving beyond our likes and dislikes we might make contact with what he called “universal mind.” There is a sense in which mind creates the world we live in. Cage believed we can learn to overcome our unnecessary feeling of separation from the world.

The Christian mystic and preacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) also had a huge effect on Cage. Eckhart thought the idea of our self that comes from our senses is not at all like our real soul. He writes, “Consequently there is nothing so unknown to the soul as herself.”[4] If we hardly know our self, what chance do we have to know God?

Above all Eckhart believed in the mystery of God. We draw closest to that mystery not by trying to describe the positive attributes of God but by meditating on what God is not. We see the true God not by dwelling on the needs of our self but in the world beyond us.

According to John Cage part of the problem is that modern people, and especially artists, think that happiness and truth come from self-expression. In contrast to this Cage asserts that the stories in our heads, th[5]e tapes we play in our brains to understand what is happening – these are precisely the problem.

Cage admired Henry David Thoreau, that he, “got up each morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.”[6]

Around the age of forty researchers at Harvard University invited Cage to try their anechoic chamber, a room so thoroughly insulated that it was probably the quietest place on earth. Cage looked forward to experiencing complete silence. However, in the room he noticed two different kinds of sound. Afterward the technician explained that the high pitched whine was the sound of his firing neurons and the dull roar was the blood coursing through his body.

This realization that there is no such thing as silence came as a spiritual revelation to him. In 1952, inspired by this experience, he composed the controversial 4’33” a piece performed by expert musicians who make no deliberate sounds on their instruments. Many ridiculed him. At performances they could hear nothing but their own egos. But a few experienced a kind of opening into a deeper level of experience, a new appreciation of holiness in everyday sounds.

The piece had this effect on Cage himself. Three years before his death he told an interviewer, “No day goes by without making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day… I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it… More than anything else, it’s the source of my enjoyment of life.”[7]

  1. For Cage, hunger for self-expression, our inner narratives, the ego prevent us from fully experiencing what matters most. So how do you peel back the ego to hear the beautiful sounds where others perceive only silence or themselves? The poet and potter M.C. Richards (1916-1999) was among the remarkable number of modern artists who John Cage counted as friends. You can see some of her works by the south wall as part of the Stations of the Cosmic Christ.

Richards believed in what she calls “centering.” She writes, “the deeper we go… the more contact we make with another’s reality… I claim that the center holds us all and as we speak out of it, we speak in a common voice.”[8] For her what is real, what makes it possible for us to experience the beauty that surrounds us comes from that deep place where we meet each other.

According to M.C. Richards education is the process of waking up to this shared Self. Rather than projecting our consciousness onto the world we can learn to take the world into ourselves. In her book Centering in Poetry, Pottery and the Person Richards writes, “Joy is different than happiness… I am talking about joy. How, when the mind stops its circling, we say YES, YES to what we behold.”[9]

This connection to each other in our center lies at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. It exists above any commitment to nation or family or ideal. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13). My experiences over the last two weeks have shown me just how new this commandment is.

Last Saturday our family went on a Duck Tour in Boston Massachusetts. With the tourists we rode in an amphibious vehicle over the streets of Boston and the waves of the Charles River. Before long it seemed more like a journey in an “ambiguous vehicle.”

For the first time since childhood I heard all the stories of the Revolutionary War. But this time, rather than being struck by the inevitability of the conflict (or the righteousness of the cause), I felt an overwhelming sadness. One third of the colonists were loyal to the crown, one third wanted to try a new experiment in government and another third couldn’t decide. Imagine the kind of tensions in that society.

Listening again to the founding myths of our country filled me with a sense of tragedy. I felt sorry that the colonists could not have more of a role in governing themselves, for the people killed and those who did the killing in the Boston Massacre, that Britain attempted to quell dissent through a massive occupation. It seemed horrifying that there were a thousand British casualties and five hundred American casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill). I almost wanted to weep at the Old North Bridge memorial marker for the British soldiers who died so far away from home.

Patrick Henry’s slogan “Give me liberty or give me death” began to sound a lot more like “I’ll die for my political beliefs but I’ll also kill because of them.” I began to wonder if life here is so different from Canada that it justifies the death of so many young men. I love this country very much but I love it for the good we create together not for what we have lost. Last night at the “Ireland’s Poet-Patriots” event I felt a similar feeling.[10]

The old way tells us that we have to harden our hearts against human feeling. But in the new creation, which keeps challenging us in different ways, love comes first. At every moment in minor decisions and major ones, we can choose to perpetuate the cycle of tragedy and loss or we can rise with Jesus to new life in forgiveness.

I began with an idea – that “nearest to all things” lies our creator, the one William James describes as, “the more,” that unconscious connection between us and a higher life. We fail to see and hear this holy one because ego has made our soul unknown to itself. We have constructed a kind of anechoic chamber of the heart that makes us deaf not only to the existence of our beautiful source but to the needs of others.

According to John Cage we can be transformed by the ordinary. His friend M.C. Richards shows that we have great reason for hope. The closer we draw to the center, the more we see the common ground that we share. We will not always be perfect, but we can all return to the love at our heart.

I pray that we will be able to carry this idea with us as we leave this place and that it will transform our vision and our life. Let me conclude with Bishop Marc Andrus’ favorite quote from Richards. “Within us lives a merciful being who helps us to our feet however many times we fall.”[11] I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Journal ed. John C. Broderick and Robert Sattelmeyer, Vol. 4 (Princeton NJ: University Press, 1981-), 52-54. and “Economy” in Walden.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, The Illustrated Walden (Princeton, NJ: 1973), 134.

[3] William James The Variety of Religious Experiences in Writings: 1902-1910 (NY: The Library of America, 1987), 454, 458.

[4] Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (NY: Penguin Books, 2013), 129.

[5] Ibid., 269.

[6] Ibid., 187.

[7] Ibid., xviii.

[8] Mary Caroline Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), 4.

[9] Ibid., 13, 15.

[10] Pádraig Pearse (1879-1916) one of the men cruelly executed after the Easter Uprising in Dublin, Ireland on May 3, 1916 put it so well in his poem. “I blinded my eyes… I closed my ears… I hardened my heart… and turned my face to the deed that I see and the death that I die.” Pádraig Pearse, “Renunciation.” The poet probably did not intend it, but devotion to a nation can mean no longer seeing the humanity of another person, closing one’s ears to the needs of another and hardening one’s heart to human kindness.

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