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Sunday, December 9
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, December 6
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, December 2
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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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/

Sunday, December 2
The Curse and Blessing of Our Expectations
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).
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“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3).

 

The thirty-nine year old man at the L’Enfant Metro subway station in Washington D.C. wore a Nationals baseball hat, a long-sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans.[1] He set up his violin, threw a few dollars into the case as seed money and at 7:51 a.m. on a cold winter day he began to play six pieces of classical music. Two things were remarkable about the next forty-three minutes.

First, was his seemingly perfect invisibility to nearly everyone. The musician remarked, “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all… Because you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” Of the 1,097 people who passed only seven stopped for more than a minute. Twenty-seven gave a total of $32.17. He was universally ignored by every demographic category, by men and women, workers and retired people, rich and poor, Asian, white and African-American – with the one exception of children. They tried to stop and listen but their parents always hurried them on.

People lined up at a nearby lottery machine and didn’t even turn around. A deafening silence followed the end of each piece. Only once was there more than one person listening. Of the 1,097 people only one person recognized who he was and only one other person really stopped to listen.

Yes the second remarkable fact was that this was Joshua Bell who later that year won the Avery Fisher Prize as the best classical musician in America. He was playing some of the most powerful and difficult music ever written, on a Stradivarius violin built in 1713 which last sold for $3.5 million. The night before he had filled Symphony Hall in Boston with people paying about $100 per ticket.

The woman who recognized him said, “people were not stopping, and not even looking… I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

Why were so few people able to receive this gift? Quite simply it was because they were not expecting it. To use Jesus’ words, “their hearts were weighed down with… the worries of life” so that this moment of grace caught them “unexpectedly” (Lk. 21). Expectations matter. They constantly give form to the reality that we experience.

Have any of you ever watched the sardines that circle around the entryway to the Outer Bay exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium? All these shining fish go clockwise around the light blue top of the circular room together as a school. But one sardine swims above all the others and goes the opposite way. Being a Christian in Advent is a little like this. The Christian in December is the same kind of creature, doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of environment but differently.

Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of expectations, the church’s new year observance when the world around us seems both strangely near to and oddly distant from our hopes. It is a time of imperfect harmony. The world waits for Christmas and expects to experience a little more generosity and kindness than we see at other times of the year. We as Christians participate in this too. We might even recognize some of our hymns played in shopping malls, but we also have much higher expectations. We expect the coming of the Holy One. We await the advent of the Christ. We hope that Jesus will be born in our hearts.

For every human being what we hope will happen is a vital part of our experience of what already is and who we are. Today I am wondering about the difference between expectations that deceive and damage us, and expectations that save us and show us the way into new life?

A few years ago I went to a dinner banquet for alumni from Bowles Hall, the last all male residence in the University of California system. Some men there had distinguished careers and one of us even has an airport named after him. But the group who had been in college with me seemed weighed down with the heaviness of failure. One friend had lost a fortune in the last year and was working at a job that he considered below his capabilities. Another just never felt like he lived up to his potential. I had known these gray-haired men when they were goofy freshmen and the sadness of these unfulfilled expectations moves me.

We talked about the 2008 movie The Wrestler as a kind of symbol for our experience. The wrestler played by Mickey Rourke is about a man in his forties who had been a celebrity professional wrestler back in the 1980’s. Despite his now painfully ruined body he tries to make a comeback until a heart attack forces him to reevaluate his life. He reaches out to his estranged daughter, becomes close to a stripper with whom he has fallen in love. But he cannot change. He cannot free himself from the expectations that have motivated his life for twenty-five years. He seems bent on his own destruction. His dreams are literally killing him.

Tragedy could be defined as suffering for who we are. The pain is magnified by the feeling that we cannot in any meaningful way change. But all of us can change our expectations, not only of our circumstances, but of other people and even of ourselves.

The nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was famous for his pessimism. He believed in a fatalism that makes us victims of a malicious universe which controls our happiness through our circumstances in life. He wrote that, “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.”[2] What I mean by our expectations is not merely fantasizing that good things will happen to us. I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m just saying that our well-being includes a subjective element. How we respond to what happens to us is a more important determinant of our happiness than our situation. When we regard ourselves as mere responders, when we think that quality of our life comes from our health, wealth, position, power, experience or good fortune, we tend to ignore the good things we already have. Expectations that lead us to disapprove of or condemn others diminish us right now. This way of experiencing other people will keep us from growing into our fullness as children of God.

You may be surprised to hear it, but despite his reputation John Calvin (1509-1564) has done more than almost any other person to influence my faith. He points out that one of the most deeply rooted human beliefs is our expectation that God will not take care of us. Most of our behavior having to do with the future rests on this assumption. Because of this, for Calvin faith is not merely believing that God exists, but believing that God loves and cares for us.[3]

We see this in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We understand its implications through the inspiration of the spirit. Becoming a Christian means beginning to live as people who know that they depend on God.

In so many ways people sit in judgment of God.[4] They have their own idea of justice which is biased deeply in their own favor. They think that they could run the universe better than God does. They easily become angry with God about what happened to us in the past.

What is it that sets Christians apart – I believe it is the expectation that God will be good to us in the future. My college friends have a faith that rests in their individual accomplishments, in the respect that other people have for them and in the wealth that they believe will protect them. Everything in their life depends on what happens to be given to them on the outside.

But we are like that sardine swimming above it all. The world is baffled by Christian faith because it comes from the inside. This trust in God’s goodness leads to a new experience of reality based on gratitude and love.

It is the expectation that the most powerful change we witness in our life will be the change in our own hearts as we turn our life to God.[5] The experience of being God’s children makes us more accepting of other people’s faults. It changes our expectations of what God should be doing for us, so that we can receive the gifts that God is actually giving us.

One of my favorite lines in scripture comes from Paul’s letter to his friends in distant Thessalonica. Scholars believe that these are the oldest words in the New Testament. He writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you…” (1 Thess. 3:9). Paul loved those imperfect people in the way that we love each other here at Grace Cathedral. This attitude of joy and gratitude arises naturally out of our faithful expectations.

Literally one person in a thousand recognized Joshua Bell as he played the violin in the subway station. Only one other person really heard him, John Picarello, a short man with a baldish head who works as a supervisor for the postal service. He told a reporter what he heard. “It was a treat, just brilliant, an incredible way to start the day.”

In this winter time when the hills surrounding us become green with new life, we too can choose to be like children and receive God’s gift. How will you change your expectations this Advent? How will you let God change you?

[1] My summary cannot come close to doing justice to my excellent source. See Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nations Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out,” The Washington Post, 8 April 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721_pf.html

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Tr. R.J. Hollingdale (NY: Penguin, 1970), 168.

[3] Faith is knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the promise in Christ revealed by the Holy Spirit (Inst. 1:551).

[4] One of the most vivid scenes in William Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack happens when the main character, a man named Mack, encounters the spirit of God’s wisdom in a cave. In the center of the room stands the judgment seat. Mack worries that he will not be able to stand this scrutiny over his sins. He is then surprised to learn that instead this is the place where he sits to judge God. Sophia points out that judging requires us to believe that we are superior over the one being judged. William P. Young, The Shack,(Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007) 159.

[5] Calvin writes that the heart is more difficult to convert than the mind.

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, September 2
Crafting a Balanced Spiritual Cocktail
Preacher: Anna E. Rossi
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Nearly ten years ago, I took a professional detour: I became a beverage director. I could abide its 2 a.m. accounting for the delight of crafting a cocktail program. I shaved freshly foraged fungi on shaken quinoa vodka and honey, and played with the viscosity of a syrup so the swirled mix traced the interior of the glass like the legs of a well-aged Bordeaux. I reduced berries, balsamic and herbs to offer the equal and attractive alternative.  Spirits were designed to be medicinal, even a little playful, to pique the palate, ease digestion, lubricate social exchanges.  Crafting and mixing beverages is variation on that fairytale Goldilocks theme: not too boozy, not too sweet, not too much… but just right.  My professional life’s moved on, but the art of the cocktail still serves as a favorite metaphor for the spiritual life. What is the cocktail that piques our palate for God’s presence, makes us ready to feast and vibrant as social body?  The flavor of this lived out, balanced spiritual life or “true religion” is the subject of today’s readings, and its multiple opinions.

In the Gospel, the Pharisees and scribes, representatives of the Jerusalem Temple and the surrounding region, question Jesus about a violation of ritual purity: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?” We might hear something like “You’re not following our rules.” But recall that many of these ‘rules’, more rightly, these teachings, are explicit in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, Tradition with a capital-T.

By contrast, Mark’s Jesus has only been in the Galilee, away from the Jerusalem Temple and its power. So, Jesus appeals to the prophet Isaiah, who in his own day challenged Jerusalem. Quoting from a text that was common to Jews who stayed abroad after the exile Jesus says: “in vain do they worship me, they abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

At first blush, Jesus seems to deal a mortal blow to ritual purity or observance As if to say to modern Orthodox Jews: “Have a bacon cheeseburger, God doesn’t care.” Or to us: “Do whatever feels right if and when you come to church; the ‘rules’ that make your prayer common don’t really matter.”  Except we know our common prayer is more than instructions.  Like the Judean’s ritual washing, it is a source of our identity, a bond of affection among us, and before God. Like the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, used in the Jewish Sabbath liturgy, our worship life is one human tradition’s faithful response, to the call to arise, to be swept up in the song of God’s love, to blossom in God’s embrace.

Where is God’s call in today’s Gospel? First, God’s call is to order our spiritual life. Roman Catholic New Testament Scholar John Meier[1] investigates the history of this passage, and surmises that if the historical Jesus had actually dismissed the whole foundation of Judaism, the Scribes and Pharisees would have responded. Instead, they simply vanish from the scene. It’s more likely that Jesus was interpreting the priorities of the tradition: Prioritize virtue —habits of the heart then ritual observance.

Second, God’s call is to a community of wholeness, for everyone, religious insiders and outsiders, without exception. We are marred only by the ways we degrade or dehumanize one another. Theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman writes: “[Jesus] recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.”[2]

Out of the heart are the issues of life. We may be thoroughly overwhelmed by what James’ Epistle terms the “rank growth of wickedness” that pervades our public life. We may feel ill-equipped to effect real or lasting social change. But we, as God’s people in this place, can be stewards and growers of that spirit against which wickedness will not prevail.  Not by lashing out, but looking in, and doing “true religion” from the heart.

True religion is curious, it expects the unexpected from God. It pushes the ritual life to wonder and wander, and the bounds of the community to include. It listens for the heart of faithfulness, and like Jesus, knows that practice on the margins is at least as true and God-revealing as that from the center.

This Friday, I visited Oakland’s  Qal’bu Maryam, the second women’s mosque to open in the U.S. The mosque’s founding Imam, Rabi’a Keeble departs from the prevailing wisdom that the community should be women-only, women-led. Her concern is that all people, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or gender identity, learn to pray and lead as equals together.  I visited for the inauguration of their new space, as a non-Muslim and a woman, I naturally lingered toward the back of the prayer rugs. The imam turned and invited me to step forward. I was deeply touched by her gesture because I knew it broke all manner of norms. It was virtue first, then ritual observance.  Who can you, who can we invite forward, into our center today? And whose foreign faithfulness will reveal something of God to us?

If true religion is curious, true virtue is practical. It knows that perfection belongs to God, and persistence to human kind. Virtue knows that its aim is a character of love. True virtue does not blossom in an idea, but in doable actions.  One weeknight dinner in July, our household was enjoying unusual fare, as everyone was eating meat. The older son, temporarily omnivorous, set the date when he would revert to being pescatarian. I was struck by his clarity and wondered aloud, “Why eat meat just for the summer?” He replied with a careful account of balancing the energy required to be a counselor in training biking five miles per day to camp, and chasing after seven-year-olds; with his distress at how factory farming harms animals and the environment.

This account has stuck with me in my own practical balance-seeking. I’m reminded that virtue isn’t our ‘perfection.’ Virtue is God’s gift received and ours given again in response: the implanted word blossoming and our conscious craft of our best selves.

The implanted word, God’s gift is blossoming. How do you craft your spiritual cocktail  for balanced response? This week, how can you keep the ingredients fresh, the flavors complementary, the volume fitting the glass?  True virtue and true religion, that balanced spiritual cocktail, prime us to love better: God, one another, the whole creation.

Today, may our palates be primed to feast on the Word Made Flesh, who nurtures our social body, who heals and eases and delights.

Today, may our faithful practices prime us for the voice of the beloved, that upon hearing, together, we arise.

[1] John P Meier, “The Historical Jesus and Purity,” Joint Sessions of the “Historical Jesus” and “Jewish-Christian Relations” Task Forces, Catholic Biblical Association of America. St. John, MN: August, 2005, sec. 8 and 11.

[2] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Reprint edition (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 11.

Thursday, August 30
Sticking to the Rules
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman you are set free…’” (Luke 13)

How do you know when to stick to the rules and when to break them? It surprises me how often this question comes up.

This fall Robert Sapolsky a neuro-scientist from Stanford will be visiting for the Forum. As a young boy he dreamed of living with the Mountain Gorillas in one of the dioramas in New York City’s Museum of Natural History. But instead during his twenty-first year he joined a baboon troop in Kenya.[1]

During his time as a researcher there Sapolsky came to love the strategies involved in using a dart gun to sedate male baboons. Even to this day he imagines darting the people around him.

He tells the story of his “most disastrous darting ever.” At first everything went according to plan. He shot a baboon named Uriah in the rump. Uriah jumped up ran ten steps and sat down again. But then it happened. Another baboon took down a small impala. Uriah ran over and stole the impala.

The others chased after him until finally, still with the impala Uriah took refuge in a kind of cave of thorn bushes beside the river. The problem was that if the other baboons went in to that small space while Uriah was half-conscious, they would rip him apart.

So Sapolsky did something crazy. He jumped up and down yelling to scare everyone away from the opening. And then he slowly slid on his back through the one foot high entrance. The thorn cave is about three feet high and Sapolsky is so relieved to see that Uriah is asleep that he begins to draw his blood, entirely forgetting that there is a live impala in the cave also.

The animal starts going crazy. Sapolsky somehow kills it. Then realizing that the other baboons are about to enter he pushes the dead weight toward the entrance until it starts to move on its own as a baboon hand grabs its shoulder. The baboons are yelling, snarling and fighting right outside as Sapolsky worries that another might take refuge in the cave. Finally they are gone and he wrestles Uriah’s sleeping body into his jeep.

On that crazy day in East Africa Sapolsky broke the rule about not putting yourself in danger. He did to save another being who he had inadvertently put in danger.

One Sabbath day Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and a woman appears with a spirit that had, “crippled her for eighteen years” (Lk. 13). Luke writes, “Kai idou” which means “look” or “pay attention.” Jesus heals the woman and she immediately stands up straight and begins praising God.

This infuriates the leader of the synagogue, the dean of that place if you will. He explodes with anger. He believes that Jesus has broken the rule that no work should be done on the Sabbath. He tells the people to be cured only on other days. In response Jesus points out that we take care of our animals on the Sabbath, we feed them and give them water. Certainly one should help a woman who has been suffering so long.

In our old church we had a woman named Jane Whitner who was completely bent over in pain for many years. In our visits she would tell me what her life had been like when she was young. She told me how just once she fell utterly in love. Other than that she had been terribly lonely and was so brave and faithful. If even for a second I had the chance to heal her nothing could have stopped me.

With all of our temptations to treat others as objects in our way, Jesus expands the circle of beings that we care about. Knowing someone, experiencing that person as a being in his or her own self and not just as an object, that is what Jesus invites us to do.

Let us pray:

Almighty God expand the circle of those who are dear to us entrusting them to your never-failing care and love, for this life and for the life to come, knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 13, 43-5.

Sunday, August 26
The Bread of Heaven and the Spiritual Forces of Evil
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic forces of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6).

What kind of person are you becoming? Who do you want to be? We might begin to answer this by considering what we really long for. Augustine (354-430), the fourth century North African saint says, “I desire to know two things only – God and the soul. And nothing more? No nothing at all.”[1] This is a sermon about God and our soul.

  1. God. In the Gospel of John, at several points Jesus encourages the people he encounters to look more deeply into the world. He warns that his words should not be taken too literally, that we should be less quick to believe that we understand everything. In short Jesus invites us to look below the surface of reality, past the way the world seems to be, and down to the truth of how it really is.[2]

In this Gospel Jesus often has to correct people who have taken his words too literally. The spiritual leader Nicodemus does this when he asks Jesus if being, “born again,” means to go back into our mother’s body (Jn. 3:4). The Samaritan woman does this too, when in response to his promise of “living water,” she points out that he seems to have “no bucket” (Jn. 4:11). This happens again when Jesus speaks in the synagogue at Capernaum.

For five weeks in church we have been reading through the sixth chapter of John. In it Jesus feeds 5,000 people and walks on water. But he also implores his hearers to move beyond signs and miracles to get to the real meaning of what he is trying to communicate. He wants us to grasp the idea that we can be closer to God than we have ever imagined. He promises that with our whole being we can have real life – authentic, courageous, true, joyful life.

John lets us in on a secret that few in this story can see. The crowds compare what happened in the feeding of 5,000 people to the exodus. When God’s people escaped from the Pharaoh in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they grew hungry in the desert. They complained bitterly, “if only we had died by the fleshpots of Egypt… for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger.” In response the Lord says to Moses, “I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you” (Ex. 16).

Jesus uses the idea of manna, of food from heaven, to describe himself. Just as the Ancient Israelites were miraculously fed every morning, Jesus is the way that God feeds the world. Jesus says, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn. 6:33). “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me” (Jn. 6:54). This profoundly shocked the people who were following him. The irony that no one in the story seems to appreciate concerns the completeness of the analogy.

Jesus is not just food for the world, but causes scandal by simply being himself. The Greek word gogguzō means to complain. In the same way that the people’s ancestors complained in the desert about being hungry, then complained about the manna, that is the food from heaven, they grumble about Jesus (Exodus 16, Numbers 11:6).[3] This is the story of how 5,000 disciples become so offended that they abandon Jesus.

What is their exact complaint? One could literally translate this Greek sentence as follows. Many disciples said that the teaching (logos) is so hard (sklēros, like our word sclerosis for hardened arteries) that they are, “unable to hear” (Jn. 6:60).

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) writes about the difference between the philosopher Socrates and Jesus. Socrates is a teacher. He tells us something that we already know deep inside. But Jesus is the savior, the one who makes it possible for us to understand.[4] That is what it means to say, “let anyone with ears to hear listen” (Mk. 4:23). Jesus gives us the way of hearing as well as what is communicated. For us this happens through the Holy Eucharist or communion.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:48). “The one who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:58). And so we have the irony of this story in which people by being unable to hear, actually make stronger the analogy between Jesus and manna. This account of disciples who abandon Jesus actually helps to deepen our own commitment to him.

Jesus is not merely a great teacher or a prophet. That is not what’s at stake. Jesus is the Son of God, the source of every life, the sustainer of all the worlds. This morning Jesus asks us to put aside whatever offends us and to hear a deeper truth. He wants us to realize that just as food sustains our body, “it is the spirit that gives life” (Jn. 6:63).

He uses this language for us to conceive of a mystery, that in the most intimate way God can dwell within us. When we open our minds, listen more deeply, when we share spiritual mysteries like this bread, Jesus is in our midst.

  1. Soul. The whole purpose of these readings, of the Bible, is not to definitively establish something that happened in a long ago past. The goal is for us, in our own time, to draw nearer to God. It is to change the trajectory of our life toward holiness, to become God’s children by loving what God loves. We need this so badly right now.

This week I tried to talk to my teenaged daughter about what the prayerbook calls, “the evil powers of the world that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures.”[5] All of us know about sin as a kind of autonomous decision that individuals make to go astray. We do not often talk so frankly about the forces that direct us away from the good.

I am so glad that social justice advocates have introduced us to the idea of implicit bias against people of color. These always present, unconscious prejudices are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spiritual powers. Fear, bigotry, addiction, misogyny, lust, a sense of inadequacy, a craving for power, rage, violence, insecurity, desire for revenge – all these set off chain reactions that distort human life and cause suffering.

Whatever you think about the convictions of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, you must recognize that the current situation has put us on edge. And that is not all. This week I was walking around Grace Cathedral and for the first time none of the people here would look me in the eye or exchange a greeting. It was as if I had committed the worst possible sin. And in their eyes perhaps I had.

It was Tuesday night with our 700 person yoga community and I was a priest who some probably associated with the new sexual abuse crimes that surfaced last week in Pennsylvania churches. These terrible crimes against children and their perpetuation by a warped bureaucracy are the kind of evil that I’m talking about. Perhaps I am just projecting my own sorrow onto others, but we all have stories about undercurrents of irrationality and hatred that cause terrible harm.[6]

Paul’s encouragement to put on the “whole armor of Christ” has been deeply moving to me for almost my whole life. We read this every three years and I remember it coming up during my ninth and twelfth grade years. I wore armor myself in those days and I could vividly imagine stepping onto the football field without the protection of my helmet, shoulder pads and cleats.

This image may not work for you at all. It makes physical danger a kind of symbol for our spiritual dangers and you might not easily imagine what it is feels like to be in physical danger anymore. But we still need spiritual protection.

Paul advises us to constantly move away from our egotism and to make God the center of our life. Putting on the belt of truth means not being ashamed of how you appear to others in your speech. The shield of faith is the way that the arrows of fear and anger can be deflected when we trust entirely in God.

For me the sword of the spirit is the practice of prayer which helps us to determine what really is from God. The helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness are the acts of goodness that arise out of a confidence that God is the one who is in charge. Imagine how much more free and confident Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and Donald Trump would be feeling they had told the truth and done what is right.

Finally Paul refers to shoes as a way of considering where we put ourselves in the world to share good news of peace. It is the realization that we can bring God’s peace with us everywhere.

What kind of person are you becoming? What do we know about God and our self? Because we stand here we can see more than that crowd moving away from Jesus.

We recognize his invitation to be the sort of person who sees below the surface. Like Jesus we will always cause scandal for others simply by being ourselves.

Not simply as a teacher but as a savior Jesus welcomes us to this table where we feel God’s deepest presence in our lives. And the faith he gives us will protect us. Our deepest longing is for God. Let the bread rain down from heaven. Let us learn to trust God completely. Is there nothing more? No nothing more.

[1] Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers tr. Agnieszka Kolakowska (NY: Penguin, 2007) 54.

[2] The first half of this sermon is deeply indebted to Liz and Matt Boulton’s analysis of this pericope in “Real Life: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Fourteenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 21 August 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-fourteenth-week-after-pentecost

[3] “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:5-6, NRSV).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments or a Fragment of Philosophy tr. David F. Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942).

[5] The Examination of Candidates in the Baptism Service. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 302.

[6] At the turn of the millennium I remember a surfer yelling at me about sexual abuse in the line up at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. He was angry about something that happened in his past or something he knew about. He knew I was a priest and it came out explicitly in our confrontation.

Sunday, August 19
Sunday 11 a.m. sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
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Sunday, August 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
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The Rev. Jude Harmon’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Thursday, August 9
Evensong sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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There was an article in the Guardian newspaper a couple of years ago, written by a hospice nurse, on the five things people regretted most at the end of their lives. These regrets had nothing to do with barns full of stuff or any other financial or social achievements. Instead they were all about who they had been, and who they had failed to be.

The first was: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” People saw and deeply mourned that they had not lived true to their own truth, true to their own dreams. The second: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” People, especially older men, regretted spending so much of their lives on job success and economic achievement. The third “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” Many felt they had buttoned down their true emotions to fit in with others and keep the peace, and so had never experienced life in an open heart-strong way. The fourth and fifth seem the simplest and saddest of all “I wish that I had stayed in touch with my friends” and “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

“I wish that I had let myself be happier”. This evening’s two Bible readings reflect this basic truth of human existence – that meaning and value never lie in what we accumulate but in who we become. Jesus in Luke’s gospel calls it ‘being rich towards God’. Being rich towards God means being the person God created us to be – living into our own unique identity, valuing ourselves for who we are rather than what we do, expressing our feelings fully and not being afraid to love, building strong lasting relationships, and allowing ourselves to be joyful, thankful, laughing creatures.

These are the things that stop life being mere vanity and a waste of divine breath. These are the building blocks of a life that we can leave knowing our time has been blessed and we have been a blessing to others. Don’t let yourself become rich in possessions and poor towards God. Don’t allow the fog of the demands of daily living to obscure this core divine and human truth: God created you to add to the delight of the world. So, in the words of poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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