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Sunday, September 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, September 20
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, January 17
Justice, Marriage and the Wedding at Cana
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from the Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist

Sunday, January 10
What Is Blessing?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Do not fear... When you pass through the waters, I will be with you" (Isa. 43).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“Do not fear… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isa. 43).

What does it mean to be blessed or to bless?

Beth, of my old neighbors, left her job as a law professor to work for the Obama administration in the State Department as a human rights expert. She once told me how much energy it takes to establish and maintain the rule of law. Since 1789 the average life expectancy of national constitutions is only 17 years. In human history our 218-year-old national constitution represents a remarkable accomplishment. [1]

What makes this kind of social stability possible? I know that it has something to do with resources, economics and good luck, but it also concerns a kind of underlying philosophy. Behind a society’s outward way of doing things lies an idea of what it means to be human, how we are connected to others. A system of values, myths and symbols fund every social interaction.

The current film The Big Short tells the story of investors who predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown. It heavy-handedly repeats that values like honesty, integrity, fair play, reasonable reward for socially productive work, refraining from exploiting poor or ignorant people, even acting against one’s own interest when justice requires it – these are all that stand between us and terrible human suffering.

Still it can happen. Through cataclysmic disaster, through plagues, environmental collapse, enemy invasion or just the erosion of values like love and justice, the stories about how to be human can cease to make sense to us. They can die.

The prophet Isaiah faced exactly this situation. After his people had been utterly defeated, the leaders had been exported as slaves to the enemy’s capital, after the crops failed because no one was left to tend them – the people came home. After they had lost everything Isaiah tries to give life to an ancient idea that had been forgotten. The idea is that God has called us by name and redeemed us. When we pass through the waters and through the fire, God will be with us. Nothing shall overwhelm us. The word for this is “blessing.”

I want the idea of blessing to fully belong to you. I want it to become part of your inner emotional landscape, to be a word that you speak out loud and use to understand what the philosopher William James calls, the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of reality.

Blessing is the assurance that we exist as God’s beloved children. The Old Testament word for it is b’rah-chah (berek). It was originally connected to the fertility of crops, livestock and human beings. Blessing refers to the bridge between human life and the mysterious beauty that lies beyond it. It is God’s voice that says to every faithful person, “You are my child, my beloved.” Through baptism we recognize that our identity comes from our relation to others. Baptism is central to the Christian experience of God’s blessing and how we become a blessing to others.

So my message this morning has three parts: Finding Blessing, Being Blessed and Becoming a Blessing.

1. Finding Blessing. We have to find blessing because quite often we cannot see it. Luke’s account of Jesus baptism differs most starkly in two ways from the others. First, unlike Mathew, Mark and John, the spirit does not descend on Jesus while he is being baptized but afterwards as he is praying. Setting aside time and space matters when it comes to experiencing the holy. You can make yourself too busy to see almost anything of consequence.

Second, Luke differs from the others when he writes that the Holy Spirit came down “somtatiko eidei” or, “in bodily form like a dove” (Lk. 3). Luke writes this because although in some very rare occasions human beings unequivocally hear God or see Christ, we usually experience the spirit in more subtle ways.

Most people have difficulty hearing God. Why is this? The former Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts says that each one of us is like a hole in a vast sheet of fabric through which the light of God shines. [2] Despite this we do not often experience much of our life as a blessing. This morning I brought with me a cowry shell. Its smooth curves and the color and spacing of its spots could not be more beautiful. You might even say it is perfect.

Do you think that the creature living in it looks at its cowry neighbors and thinks to itself, “I have way too many dark spots” or “I wonder if this shell make me look fat?” A beautiful creature worrying about being uglier than the others sounds ludicrous but this is what human beings do this all the time. An enormous amount of our conscious life is dedicated to feeling anxious about how we look – gaining weight, losing hair, turning gray, getting wrinkles, growing into a different body shape. This is not restricted just to our appearance. We want others to think we’re successful, confident, attractive, capable, thoughtful, kind, strong, a winner…. We have strong feelings about how others perceive us.

But you are even more beautiful, more intricately constructed, more wonderfully fashioned than the most exceptional shell. Realizing this is the beginning of experiencing blessing.

This morning I want you to ask yourself, how much pain in your life is caused by self-criticism or worse by those self-judging thoughts that have been directed outwardly and surface as criticism of other people.

Last week someone asked me to respond to a Facebook post from The Pew Research Group about why according to many measures millennials are not as religious as their forbears. So many people wrote that people are too smart for religion these days. Perhaps in order to understand religion people like this need to have blessing be more a part of their life. Maybe they just have unrealistic expectations about what it feels like to encounter the Living God.

Sometimes you might experience the Holy “in bodily form” but more often than not it happens through the words of a hymn, the smile of a child, the smell of incense, the Cathedral bells, a friend’s story, the unexpected smoothness of the Bay at sunrise, a connection between what you love and the world that you had never noticed before. On the outside, the discipline of church may seem empty: coming here faithfully in the rain even when you don’t feel like it, attending long meetings, giving money, volunteering to help people who make us uncomfortable. Someone on the outside may not recognize it, they may not see God obviously there, but these ordinary things, this bread, wine, smoke, light and water create the path of perfect blessing that transforms us.

2. Being Blessed. When you believe, or at least are open enough to the possibility, you become a seeker of blessing. You will find it in the most surprising ways. Late on Monday night I was turning off the lamp in my study when my sixteen-year-old son hugged me from the side in the way that you might tackle a quarterback just after he released the ball. He had had such a hard day and he was seeking comfort and I felt this incredible depth of emotion, a huge shot of the feeling that I remembered from when I first became a father.

By Thursday night I thought that I had forgotten it. At Evensong the fading light outside shined so faintly and the stained glass window became an impossibly dark shade of blue. The choir sang right into my soul. Concentrating on that magnificent color I began to imagine myself sinking into sleep for the last time, into my own death. In that moment I felt so grateful for my life, all of this, all of you. It felt as if God were embracing me in precisely the way that I had held my son. The strength and presence and love of God overwhelmed me.

Being blessed is that simple and that profound. It arises out of an ordinary moment and it is the purpose of our life.

3. Becoming a Blessing. My last point is that we also are given the power to bless. We bless each other and we bless God. No matter how you may have come up short in the past, whatever terrible things you have done, how badly you think you compare with someone else – you can be someone who goes through life pronouncing blessings on what you experience. The theologian Martin Israel writes that there is nothing in the world that is unholy, only that which has not yet been blessed.” [3] You can be that blessing.

This does not apply merely to the bright, shiny, happy parts of your life. You can also be a blessing because of what you have suffered. The tragic things that we have gone through can actually open new paths of grace for the people we encounter. This week I talked to a friend who as a priest went through a terrible time of conflict with his congregation. I don’t know if they fired him or if he just went off quietly into the night. But it was enough for me to feel like he would have been justified in quitting the church. Rather than just trying to forget about the whole thing he got a PhD in the study of conflict and has dedicated his life to helping people in similar circumstances.

My question for you this morning is this. Can the word blessing become such a deep part of your vocabulary that it comes to order your whole life? Can you receive these words: that you are a blessing to God? It is your essence to be a channel for the blessing of God’s light and love? [4]

This week I offer you an optional homework assignment. It might be more challenging for some than others. First, try using the word blessing in public one time, that is, you might try telling someone that they are a blessing or sharing an experience of blessing that you have had. Second, do something just to be the kind of blessing that God loves.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you…” Amen.
[1] Joyce Shin, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century, 6 January 2015, 20.

[2] This paragraph and the next come from Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).

[3] Curtis G. Almquist, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 94.

[4] Ibid., 95.

Sunday, December 27
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Elizabeth Grundy
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist

Friday, December 25
Christmas Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist
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Sermon from the Christmas morning Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
Christmas Eve 7:30 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist
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Sermon From the Christmas Eve 7:30 Eucharist.

Thursday, December 24
When Do You Say, “I Love You”?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined..." (Isa. 9).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…” (Isa. 9).

Sometimes it is hard to say “I love you.” Perhaps this is because walking in darkness may seem like the most obvious thing about us as human beings. Darkness means that no one can see really well – either themselves or each other. It is why we do not really know where we are going, or what will happen to us, or for that matter were we stand right now. We experience darkness in every kind and level of conflict. [1]

Because understanding this darkness matters to me, this fall I read a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. It is a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed whose pen name is simply “Sugar.” People who usually write this kind of thing for newspapers sound official. They seem detached and in full control. They speak with a definitive, often judgmental voice. They call in expert advisors, use civil language and say almost nothing about themselves.

Sugar does just the opposite of this. Most shockingly she writes vividly about absolutely awful things that have happened in her life including her experience of sexual abuse, addiction, infidelity, divorce, stealing and promiscuity. Like the waitresses I used to know at Denny’s Restaurant she expresses her affection for these desperate letter writers and calls them “sweat pea,” “darling,” and “honey bunch.”

Let me read a quick example of a question that Johnny asked her. He writes, “Dear Sugar, My twenty-year marriage fell apart. Whose fault? Mine? My wife’s? Society’s? I don’t know. We were both too immature to get married… and we both worked hard to avoid dealing with the unhappiness that was hanging over us.”

Since the divorce and after dating a few other women Johnny has found someone whom he “click[s] with very nicely.” But he goes on, “I’m afraid to say it out loud, as my experience shows that the word “love” comes loaded with promises and commitments that are highly fragile and easily broken. My question to you is, when is it right to take that big step and say I love you?” [2] Yes, Johnny knows about darkness. [3]

I do not know where and from what directions you face darkness in your life right now. But let me share a summary of Sugar’s advice to all those who contact her in case it might be useful. First, seek out that friend who shows you some affection and sympathy – you may find that just being called “sweat pea” changes the whole picture. Next, recognize that a sense of entitlement, and the implied superiority behind it, makes us weak and dependent. It cuts us off from the resources that could help us to weather the storm. Chief among these is an extraordinary inner strength that most of us fail to see in ourselves. Finally, recognize that you cannot change other people. The best you can do is to set up healthy boundaries that show you love yourself too.

Sugar points out that two kinds of people write to her: those who have the answer already and those who are genuinely lost. Incidentally, most of us fall into the first category although we do not realize it or are afraid to act on what we do know.

You may be wondering why I am bringing this up on one of the holiest nights of the year. The reason is that in your hearts I want you to touch something real tonight and this doesn’t happen when we deny the dark parts in our life, or only bring our best selves to church.

After the emperor’s decree, after the journey to Bethlehem, after the baby, the angels, the shepherds, the fear, exhaustion, amazement, and joy – there is a quiet moment I especially appreciate. Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2). Although I love this translation it conceals something that you might not otherwise notice. More literally one might say instead, “Mary preserved these words.” Then for the word ponder the Greek is sumballousa. It means meeting, comparing, considering, bringing together. Mary brought these things together in her heart.”

Sumballousa is also the Greek word for symbol. Mary is the only adult from the stories of Jesus’ birth to have a role in the rest of his life. She puts things together. Most importantly she possesses the special gift of holding on to the meaning of things as others just go back to business as usual.

The linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have a particular interest in symbol and language. They point out that we live according to expressions, symbols and ideas that lie beneath our conscious awareness. This is the reason we act (to use their words) automatically in so many situations. [4] Our feelings and emotional life are so much more powerful in relation to our rationality than we recognize. We are metaphors that we have not always consciously chosen.

The biggest problem with this is that the meanings of these symbols will not stay fixed. I remember first hearing Adele sing “Chasing Pavements.” Her voice sounded so fresh and different. It seemed like I would never get tired of those songs, but I did. When my mother was in college she listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so many times that it completely lost its magic.

This is the same problem that we have with Christmas and Christianity in general. We are creatures in time, and meaning will not stay still. Perhaps that’s part of Johnny’s problem with saying, “I love you” to someone he cares so much about. I do not want you to miss Christmas so let me tell you about two symbols in particular that have lost their meaning and make this sacred night confusing to us.

1. Sin. Today when you see the word sin it almost always refers to something like chocolate. For us, sin means indulgence in a harmless pleasure – lingerie or ice cream or a cocktail. The only dimly remembered ancient associations of Adam and Eve, the idea that we are doing something that we shouldn’t, only makes it more fun. This is what sin means in our consumer society. That is why normal people find it impossible to understand why Christians would care much at all about sin.

When Christians use the word sin it means to screw things up, to break what we really care about, often for the sake of some far less important and more temporary feeling. It might mean anything from saying something clever at the expense of someone’s feelings to Johnny’s experience with his twenty year marriage. We are the people who walk in darkness. Sin is another word for that darkness, that world of addiction, abuse, broken relationships, hurt feelings, self-defeating behaviors, thoughtless remarks. Self-reflective adults recognize the way that we come up short, that contradictions lie at the very heart of our thoughts and behavior. But we no longer have as rich a vocabulary for recognizing this darkness.

2. Another word that we do not understand today is Christianity. I think that those who never moved beyond a child’s faith and those who never had it at all regard Christianity as a kind of theory about the universe, a child’s story of something that could never happen. Christians might seem like a club of self-righteous people forcing themselves to believe something that is obviously unbelievable.

Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic writes about a sign that atheists put on London buses a few years ago. It read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” [5] You see what the problem with this is don’t you? Think of how that sign sounds to my friend whose barely surviving as he takes care of his mentally ill wife, or my other friend who never knows where her homeless and addicted son is sleeping that night, or yet another friend whose partners summarily fired him and took his shares after he put years of his life into the company. Really – just enjoy yourself. What that bus sign says is that if you are in darkness there is no hope.

My point is that the normal state of things is not peace but a surprising amount of darkness. This is why John Lennon’s song “Imagine” has always bugged me. You remember the song, “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try…” He makes it sound as if without religions and countries and possessions everything would be perfectly peaceful. Nothing in my experience confirms this. Living together in peace is not our default condition. Peace is an achievement attained when people are at their wisest and inspired by something great.

For me, church is a bunch of people just like this. We are the ones who screw up. We gather together try to repair what is broken. We depend for help on something beautiful and mysterious lying beyond ourselves. This is what gets us through the darkness. This is the light of Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight.

Luke constantly describes Jesus as a kind of alternative to the Roman emperor, as someone who would risk everything for the sake of love, who would change what it means for all of us to be human.

You may be wondering how Sugar responded to Johnny’s question about when to tell someone that you love them. Sugar said that “love” was the last word that her mother had said to her before dying. She writes, “Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about… It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor, and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want to keep.” [6]

In short Sugar tells Johnny to say, “I love you” and then talk about what it means. Don’t try to protect yourself from the junk that comes with love by withholding or avoiding.

This is my first Christmas at Grace Cathedral and it has been magical, like the most extraordinary dream. Today the baby Jesus was fussing in her manger and so I got to hold her for the whole Christmas pageant. She called me off the script and that little baby made time stand completely still. And there I was with light streaming through these stained glass windows, with thousand of others standing simply in the presence of holiness. It was the perfect symbol for how Jesus has interrupted my life.

In the darkness of this night as the symbols around you constantly change, as you mess things up and then try to set the world right, remember Mary’s gift of holding on to meaning over time. Hold on to the hope that Jesus is always with you, then say it, say I love you with your life.
[1] If you are a person who prays, darkness is what you pray about. If you are a person who does not pray, you probably stopped for that same reason. This paragraph is a paraphrases from Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark (NY: Harper, 1969) 50.

[2] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 13-18.

[3] Others write to her with agonizing questions: Should I break up with my spouse? What do I do about my “icky” sexual fantasies? Should I continue to support the adult children who live with me? How do I handle parents who reject me because of my sexual orientation? How can I ever by okay after the death of my child?

[4] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).

[5] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (NY: HarperCollins, 2013), 7.

[6] Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (NY: Vintage, 2012), 15.

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