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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, June 10
Voices of Demons, Forgiveness of Sin
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3).

 

Friday at dawn I saw the world through security and body cameras on the Internet. Police surrounding an unarmed man by an elevator severely beating his head as his slack body slides down the wall. Police in Oregon punching the back of a mentally ill man’s head as he lies on the ground and screams that he is disabled.[1]

Police handcuffing a ten-year-old African American boy scaring him so much that he wets his pants.[2] I saw the video of Stephon Clark’s death in Sacramento – all those shots in the dark as police kill this young father in his own backyard.

The Spirit opened a kind of window in my heart that allowed me to imagine what it would feel like to one minute be living my ordinary life, and then suddenly descend into the abyss, to feel the full force of this humiliation, pain and horror. The Oregon man’s screamed question haunts me. “Why are you doing this?”

One of the leading causes of death among police officers is suicide. I am grateful that these days I am not in many extreme situations which would reveal my own racism, fear and brutality. Mostly my demons are just less exposed.

People don’t believe in demons these days. But perhaps this is a way to avoid facing the irrational powers from beyond ourselves, powers that possess and control us.

This week handbag designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain succumbed to their demons and took their own lives. I worry about other struggling souls who might follow their example. We have a connected unconscious. We do not understand certain parts of ourselves. When we look inside, sometimes we see a force that threatens to destroy us, or that takes us away from who we really are.

A few days ago I talked with a friend who has recently been released from prison. He struggles with demons of hesitancy, self-doubt and fear. He doesn’t know how to get started or even if he’s going to find a way to survive. It is not clear yet whether or not the demons will gain the upper hand.

The idea of demons may seem archaic and weird. But using this language draws our attention to a universal aspect of the human experience that modern life tends to ignore. At times our society, and we ourselves, seem to be caught in, or possessed by, dynamics beyond our control. Sometimes we recognize these forces and can name them as: defensiveness, addiction, war, family dysfunction, sexism, anger, racism, homophobia or envy. Sometimes we feel this irrational power and have no way to articulate it.

In your challenges and the struggles of people you encounter I want to share two helpful ideas from our tradition. The first concerns our relation to God and the second is about how we might understand sin.

  1. The author of Mark believes that we inhabit a dark and dangerous world. Evil can be just as much in our hearts as it is out there. He seems deeply aware that our consciousness is porous.[3] He would recognize that the evil I see on the Internet has a deep kind of hold on me.

As our gospel today begins Jesus is enjoying fabulous popularity. It’s like he woke up and suddenly had 20 million Twitter followers. People have come to see him from all over that world even from distant Idumea (Mk. 3:8). That’s 150 miles away. The crowds are cheek a jowl, huddled so closely together that Jesus and the disciples cannot even eat bread (Mk. 3:20).[4]

There are several translation issues for me in this text. The Greek word bread appears here but doesn’t make it into the English translation. Similarly the Greek text says “oi par’autou” which literally means “those with him” but appears in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as “family.” In any event, worried that he has lost his mind people with him, or his family, go to overpower him (kratos or krateo) for his own good. Words related to strength, power, ableness appear throughout this story.

The lawyers from the capitol city of Jerusalem use this occasion to charge that Jesus has not just been possessed by normal demons but by the chief demon, Beelzebul. Jesus defends himself by pointing out that healing lies at the heart of his ministry. This is the antidote to the destruction and divisiveness of the demonic. Neither a divided house nor a divided kingdom could stand. If healing were to enter Satan would literally “have his end” or come to an end. Telos the word for end the finish line of the horse-racing track. It also means goal.

Then Jesus uses an analogy that I never completely understood. He describes his mission of healing as entering a strong man’s house. To rob him, one must first bind him up. What I didn’t fully recognize before is that for Mark this world belongs to Satan. Jesus has bound him so that we might be free of the demons that afflict us.

For some evangelical Christians salvation refers to the dividing line between the godly and the godless, the people who are “saved” or “not saved.” But I have a hard time believing that this is what Jesus means. The Latin word “salvus” is not about dividing us from them. It means healing, and that is what Jesus does. In order to heal us Jesus binds up the strong man, the demons that seek to possess us.

Then comes the really remarkable thing. I don’t understand the reason for this either but the translators leave out the word “all” which occurs in the next sentence. Jesus says, “all will be forgiven of the sons of Man, their sins and the blasphemies they have blasphemed.”[5]

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) asserts that Jesus can transform our lives through his concept of a loving God. Barth writes that by God’s, “gifts [people] lived always sustained with forgiving loving-kindness.” He goes on to say that if a person really were to grasp the truth of God’s love, he or she would have, “the feeling of waking from a dream.”[6] This is what Jesus wants for us. It is how he heals us.

I wish that people really heard that line but the next almost washes it from our consciousness. This too is translated in a way that makes the truth harder to understand. It says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit does not have forgiveness in this age but is involved in an age-long sin.”

As you might gather I don’t think the point of the story is to inspire fear that we might inadvertently or intentionally commit an unforgiveable sin. I do believe Jesus wants us to take seriously the voice of God that speaks in our conscience. But this brings me to my second point which is about sin.

  1. Adam and Eve hear the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Have you ever wondered why God calls to them saying, “Where are you” (Gen. 3)? Certainly God knows this. I think it is a little like when God says to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel,” when God knows very well that Cain murdered him (Gen. 4).[7]

The point is for the listener, for Adam, Eve, Cain, you and me to re-orient ourselves, to find our way back after having been lost. Instead of denying what we have done or blaming someone else, it is the moment to take responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) the theologian who was tragically killed by the Nazis shortly before the liberation of Germany puts it this way. The decisive moment for Adam and Eve is not when they decide to eat the forbidden fruit, or when they take that first bite. It is when they try to hide from God and from their true identity as God’s children. Where are you Adam? In the same way this morning God asks, “where are you?”

There are different metaphors for understanding sin. We hear most about sin as disobedience that requires forgiveness. But equally powerful is the picture of sin as an affliction that needs to be healed. There is also the idea of sin as separation calling for reconciliation. Bonhoeffer endorses this last picture of sin as a kind of alienation or division from God and our self.

This is one of the demons that Jesus casts out of our lives: the demon that says that the differences between us are more important than what we share in common. Jesus invites us to participate in this ministry of healing. He does this knowing that will be opposed by strangers, our work colleagues, friends and even our family. Our own fear of disapproval, our desire to not interfere may hold us back. But Jesus promises an even more extraordinary intimacy. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3).

In conclusion I do not know where you are, or exactly what kind of demons you encounter in your life. Jesus’ point is that we do not face these challenges alone. The strong man has been bound. In everything God will eventually prevail. We will find brothers and sisters who will help us. Jesus will not abandon us.

Let us pray: Gracious God you summon us out of the darkness of our own hearts and into the light of Jesus. Strengthen us to overcome our demons. Heal our divisions. Help us to find ourselves in you and to embrace the hope that all will be forgiven. We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Ejf572xg02M

[2] https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/Video-Shows-Chicago-Police-Handcuffing-10-Year-Old-Boy-484629641.html

[3] Again Liz and Matt Boulton’s “Sin and Salvation,” in Salt (10 June 2018) has hugely influenced this sermon at every point. If I keep borrowing at this rate I will have to name my next child after them. I always associate this idea of the porousness of our consciousness to Matt along with the salvus idea that comes later. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-third-week-after-pentecost

[4] I don’t know why translators left out the word “bread” in this verse. There are other translation issues that elude me like why are those with him referred to as his family. I should have brought my Nestle Aland home to check alternative manuscripts.

[5] I definitely have help in all these translations from D. Mark Davis, “Parables of Plunder,” Left Behind and Loving It: Living as if God’s Steadfast Love Really Does Endure Forever, 4 June 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) I.1.460.

[7] I’m especially indebted to Liz and Matt for this and for what follows.

Sunday, June 3
The Joy and Hazards of Sabbath
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Lord, you have searched me out and known me… there is not a word on my lips but you, O Lord, know it altogether” (Ps. 139).

 

  1. At the heart of our era with its wealth and progress, lies a gaping emptiness. Despite our miraculous technologies we feel haunted by disconnection and loneliness. We have lost the capacity to wonder, to regularly experience gratitude for the gift of our life. We no longer have a sense of belonging: to each other, to creation, or God.[1]

For me the antidote to this alienation is simple. It is church. I am not embarrassed by this truth – I deeply need to worship in community every week. In my life churches have been places of healing and gratitude. In church I have the chance to experience my existence as a blessing again. In church I repent and rejoice. Most days I’m immersed in my tiny dramas. But during worship I can receive the big picture of all history, all creation.

Quite simply I keep the sabbath because it opens up a door for God to heal my soul and to empower me to be a force of good in the world. When someone is struggling spiritually, socially or emotionally I have to bite my tongue because I always want to recommend church as the solution.

My wife Heidi is a native Hawaiian and it has always been important for us to reconnect with her family and culture during the summer. I don’t often talk about it but there I’m like you, a normal person sitting in the pews at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Wailuku, Maui. Although there are some white people there the church seems predominantly Filipino, with some Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. There are tons and tons of kids. Sometimes I recognize them out in the surf lineups.

They play organ music but also have a kind of ukulele band. They constantly volunteer on projects for the poor and vulnerable. Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV were faithful Anglicans and in the 1860’s they invited the Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Whipple to found the congregation. The two had a foster daughter from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota whose name was Clara Mokomanic.

In 1866 when this family arrived at Ma’alaea Harbor no one was there to meet them so they simply walked halfway across the island to stay at Waikapu for the night. Mokomanic played the organ and according to family lore her future husband George Mossmann helped to procure the church’s land.

Mokomanic is my wife’s great great grandmother. I feel so at home there. But if one day going to church became a reason I began to look down on others, that would subvert the whole purpose of the sabbath. That attitude would impair the very health that God gives through sabbath.

In today’s gospel Jesus points out that even the most essential religious practice can be corrupted and distorted. But before we get to that let me talk about the context of this gospel and the reason why the sabbath is so important.

  1. In the church we observe six months of holy seasons from Advent to Easter and then six months of ordinary time. Today we walk through the threshold into ordinary time. The color for this season is green for the growth that we experience from following Jesus through the story of his life. This summer in our three-year cycle of readings we follow the book of Mark.

Mark is the most primal gospel, the most direct in its message. He uses simple, striking language. He tells short, abrupt stories. Mark’s favorite word is euthus – or “immediately.” Scholars believe that the gospel came into being around the time of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire. Thousands of Roman mercenaries crushed the uprising. The center of religious life, the temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed.

Mark has a simple message. Although evil seems to have the upper hand everywhere, the tide has turned. God’s kingdom of peace and justice, with its radical reversal of fortune is near. Mark comes to smash our expectations of a military messiah, a king who is simply the mirror image of the Roman Emperor. Instead the sign of God’s kingdom comes in the form of a gentle prophet, a healer, a sage who teaches us a way of rising above overwhelming evil. This messiah, Jesus, transforms the world through his suffering, death and rising again.

  1. Of all the places to begin, it might seem strange to you that the first lesson Jesus teaches in this season of ordinary time concerns the sabbath. In the Book of Exodus God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Keeping the sabbath, or refraining from work on certain days, comes before murder, adultery and stealing (Ex. 20:1-17). The Book of Exodus describes sabbath as a way of imitating God in our creativity. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth… but rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 2:11). Even during the time of planting or harvest God insists that we keep the sabbath.

The Book of Deuteronomy offers a different rationale for keeping the sabbath. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought you out from there with a mighty hand… therefore the Lord… commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

In this version the sabbath is a kind of little Exodus. It releases us from toil and work in order to give us a foretaste of the Promised Land. It reminds us that at the heart of our existence God has set us free.[2] But there is more. Sabbath is not just for the head of the household or the hierarchy. “You shall not do any work – you, or your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave.” Even the ox and the donkey, the resident alien, even the slaves deserve this taste of freedom.

In the Bible all creation, even the soil, has a right to sabbath rest. We are fundamentally spiritual beings and require sabbath. It is how we experience and cultivate the deep, abiding goodness of God in the world.[3]

  1. Mark connects two stories to help us understand the Sabbath in our own life. When the religious leaders criticize his disciples for eating grain leftover in a field, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 2).

This leads into a much more painful encounter. In the synagogue Jesus invites a man with a withered hand to come forward. He asks the religious leaders, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill” (Mk. 3)? These leaders know that saving life on the sabbath is lawful, “But they were silent” (Mk. 3). This both infuriates (orgē) Jesus and leaves him profoundly sad (sollupew) or, “grieved at their hardness of heart.”

Mark only uses this word for anger once.[4] What upsets Jesus is that these religious leaders do not care about the suffering person. For them the man with a withered has no independent existence as a child of God. For them he is only a way to test Jesus. This leads them to conspire against Jesus to utterly destroy him and everything he stands for.

Why is this so bad? What grieves Jesus? Jesus loves the sabbath. He recognizes our need for it and the way that it might transform us. But he also knows that religious practices are not ends in themselves. They are not even primarily standards for determining righteousness. The reason for keeping the sabbath or any other religious practice is to heal the world. If it does not do that, it is not merely a matter of coming up short. In this case the practice comes to be at war with itself.

Observing the sabbath in a way that diminishes or harms other people is, to use an old-fashioned word, desecration. Desecration is a harsh word. It means using a divine gift to thwart God’s purposes.

  1. This week Franklin Graham arrived in town on his “Decision America: California Tour.” Perhaps the newspapers want to stir things up and have not been entirely fair to him. They quote Graham saying that “progressive” is, “just another word for godless.”[5] The Graham website claims that, “Berkeley takes it to a new level. Christianity is not just neglected or ignored. It’s actually abhorred.” The home of the Graduate Theological Union, the town where I was ordained a priest, a is place they say where, “the Bible is pushed aside.”[6]

Perhaps I am wrong to think that these rallies deal in unhelpful stereotypes, that they assume that all Christians agree with Franklin Graham’s politics, or that they set people against each other. But even worse than this they involve a kind of desecration.

In the context of the holy practice of prayer Graham’s Crusade rejects the humanity of GLBTQ+ persons. In the same way that religious leaders ignored the suffering of the man with the withered hand, they treat the sacred relationships of gay people as a tool for advancing their political agenda. Make no mistake the mixture of their self-righteous contempt for God’s children and prayer is desecration. It is using holy gifts to thwart God’s purposes.

My friends, at the heart of this era of wealth and progress lies a yawning emptiness. We see false divisions even between Christian brothers and sisters. We grieve that in prayer Jesus’ name has come to be associated with bigotry, with hatred that denies the humanity of suffering people.

But God has not left us alone. God has not even withheld the Son. We pray that we will not misuse religious practices. But above all we give thanks for these sabbath days. Let us praise God for healing and gratitude, for this chance to repent and rejoice, for the gift of seeing all people and ourselves as God’s beloved children.

[1] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (NY: Doubleday, 2008) 194.

[2] Almost every part of this sermon is deeply indebted to Liz and Matt Boulton’s Salt, 3 June 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-second-week-after-pentecost

[3] The Bible sets up a sabbath rhythm to our life. It sets aside for special treatment every seventh day, seventh year and even every seventh sabbatical year plus one as a jubilee year (when debts are forgiven and slaves freed). The Latin word “salvus” means health. Salvation is health and it involves keeping the rhythm of sabbath.

[4] Mark D. Davis, “Putting Sabbath in Its Place,” Left Behind and Loving It, 28 May 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[5] Elizabeth Dias, “The Evangelical Fight to Win Back California,” The New York Times, 27 May 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/us/politics/franklin-graham-evangelicals-california.html

[6] Cicely Corry, “Boldness in Berkeley: Decision California Prompts Christians to Take a Stand,” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 2 June 2018. https://billygraham.org/story/boldness-in-berkeley-decision-california-prompts-christians-to-take-a-stand/

Sunday, May 27
Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Preacher: The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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It is an honor for me to be with you this morning, and to share the Gospel from this pulpit in which so many preachers, much greater than myself, have spoken.

And while I am grateful to Dean Malcolm for the invitation, I have to say that my initial enthusiasm was tempered by the realization that today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the entire church year that is dedicated to a doctrine. If you asked preachers to list their top 10 favorite Sundays to preach, the vast majority would not include Trinity Sunday in the list. Few preachers get excited about the idea of trying to explain the Trinity. And probably even fewer people who listen to sermons want to hear someone trying to explain the Trinity!

I’d like to share with you just a portion of one such attempt from the sixth century, attributed to a great luminary of the early church, St. Athanasius (who most likely did not write it):

. . . the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;

Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of

the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the

Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty

coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father

uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the

Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and

the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also

there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.

Can I get an “Alleluia”? Do you find your soul stirred? Or do you find that your brain is a bit fuzzy? Well, welcome to the world of Christian Trinitarian doctrine. My favorite line of this creed is how its section on the Trinity ends: “He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.” Really? This word formula is the way we are to think about God if we are to be saved? If that’s the case then it seems to me that, to paraphrase St. Paul, we are of all people in the world most to be pitied.

I do not want to suggest that Christian doctrine is not important. But I do want to suggest that doctrinal formulas are not life-giving. They never contain life in themselves. Rather, they point us toward that which is life-giving, that is, they point us toward God. And so I would like to invite you this morning to abandon the idea that Trinity Sunday is dedicated to a doctrine. Instead, I would like to invite you to see this day as dedicated to the mystery of God. For it is in that mystery that life will be found.

This morning’s readings from Isaiah and from John’s Gospel are full of that divine mystery. In the case of Isaiah, we hear about what is essentially a mystical experience that the prophet had when he was serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, and which contained within it God’s prophetic call to Isaiah. It was not a vision that was meant to explain God to Isaiah, but rather to pull Isaiah into the mystery of God in whose presence he suddenly found himself. The mystery of the divine presence filled Isaiah’s heart and mind and soul with that invitation, “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”, and elicited Isaiah’s consent to a prophetic vocation: “Here am I, send me!”

John’s Gospel presents the mystery quite differently. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – a time of day that has an affinity with all things mysterious. He intends to begin a dialogue with Jesus, whom Nicodemus clearly finds mysteriously compelling. And suddenly he finds himself in the midst of a conversation that makes no sense to him – with ideas of being born again, Spirit blowing around like the wind full of unpredictable possibilities, including the possibility of seeing the kingdom of God. His only response is, “How can these things be?” Which is a somewhat polite way of saying, “What in the world are you talking about?” And Jesus says, “What? You’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t get it?” As if what Jesus is saying should be self-evident. I imagine Jesus with something of a wry smile, knowing full well that he is simply pointing Nicodemus toward the mystery of the divine, knowing that Nicodemus won’t get what he’s talking about until he is able to soak in that mystery for a while. And soak Nicodemus does, for later in John’s Gospel we find him helping to entomb the body of the crucified Christ. His initiation by Jesus into the divine mystery didn’t put him off – it drew him further in.

And I’m convinced that this is how the Christian vision of God as Trinity is meant to function for us: not as an intellectual description of who or what God is, but as a kind of cipher meant to draw us into the mystery of a God who refuses to be neatly pinned down and boxed up.

But if the Trinity is a such a cipher, it is of a very unique and particular kind. And, it is a cipher of which Scripture says that we human beings are the image. Which surely deepens the mystery for us because it means that when we contemplate the vision of God as Trinity, we are also contemplating the image in which we ourselves are made. And so deep within the mystery of God, we are meant to encounter the mystery of our own humanity. And this, perhaps, is where the rubber hits the road for us, where the mystery of God begins to matter most: where it shows up in us.

For centuries, Christian theology has focused on how God shows up in the individual human being. Theologians have long been trying to find various trinities within the human person that could be said to constitute the image of God within us. St. Augustine, for example, found that image in human memory, understanding, and will: a trinity of qualities that each person possesses; three qualities that make each individual a bearer of the divine image.

And this individual focus has been valuable, even though Christians have not always been successful at living into the full implications of it. Because this insistence that we are each made in the image of God is fundamentally the theological foundation of the idea of individual

rights, of the dignity and worth of each and every human person which the Western world has long championed, even as we have had trouble actually living it out and really applying it to each and every person. But the great movements of change that have swept the West – movements to liberate people from slavery, movements to bestow civil rights on people of color, movements to empower women and protect children, movements to grant equality to LGBTQ people – all of these movements, where they have intersected with the life of the church, have been able to call upon this vision of each human being as bearer of the divine image as a theological justification and foundation for their movement of liberation. And that has been a very good thing, indeed.

But notice that this idea of each individual made in the image of God does not necessarily require that we work out how that vision shows up in us in a Trinitarian way. And, as the Roman Catholic priest and mystic Richard Rohr has noted, most Christians don’t generally think of the image of God within themselves as a Trinitarian image. Indeed, Rohr says, most Christians are not functionally Trinitarian. We are doctrinally Trinitarian, in the sense that we say we believe that God is Trinity, but it makes no practical difference to most of us. Despite the hope of the Athanasian Creed that we would walk about thinking deeply about God as three in one and one in three, we don’t actually spend time doing that.

But I want to suggest that, if we are to be true to our Christian calling, we need to be thinking about what it means to be functional Trinitarians. We need to notice something about this vision of God as Trinity: that it is essentially a vision in which God is seen to exist as relationship. A vision in which individual elements named as Father, Son, and Spirit are eternally dancing in a state of mutual embrace that somehow mysteriously constitutes the very life of God. It is in this image that we human beings are made, and we need to explore what that means.

Recently, I attended a conference at which Lisa Sharon Harper was the theologian in residence. Lisa comes from the evangelical tradition, and she works to find ways of proclaiming the Gospel as truly good news in the midst of oppressed communities. Part of her journey has been a deep exploration of the Book of Genesis, where we first find that affirmation that we are made in the image of God. In her book, “The Very Good Gospel”, Lisa points us toward another message that is connected to that affirmation: “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Lisa insists that we cannot hear that we are made in the image of God without also hearing that this is “very good.” But this is not just any sort of goodness.

She notes that in Hebrew, the word translated as “good” is tov – a word that does not so much refer to the goodness of something in itself, “but . . . to the ties between things.” She writes, “In the Hebrew conception of the world, all of creation is connected. The well-being of the whole depends on the well-being of each individual part. The Hebrews’ conception of goodness was different than the Greeks’. The Greeks located perfection in the object itself. A thing or person strove toward perfection. But the Hebrews understood goodness to be located between things. As a result, the original hearers would have understood tov to refer to the goodness of the ties and relationships between things in creation.”

When we put this in the context of the Christian vision of God as Trinity, then we can connect the dots. God is experienced as good, as powerful, as just, as mighty, as compassionate – and all the other adjectives we might use to describe God – because of the eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit — or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It is the unending divine dance of the three embracing each other as one that leads to the overflowing divine goodness that has brought us – and all of creation – into being.

What an amazing thing it is to think about ourselves as created in this image. We are indeed each, individually, bearers of the image of God, each worthy of dignity, each equal in standing. But it does no good to be a bearer of the image of God until you reach out in relationship toward others. The goodness of humanity as created by God is seen only in the goodness that exists between us. It is impossible to be a “good person” unless one stands in a web of relationship in which goodness is made manifest.

There has perhaps never been a moment in human history when we need more to recover this profound vision that places relationship at the very center of who God is, and of who we are. We live in a time when people are seen to be increasingly disposable. We live in an age when too many people give into a selfishness, a narcissism, that sees the world as existing only to serve their particular needs. We live in a period when our own government has been elected on a platform of selfishness, a platform extolling the supposed virtues of living only for ourselves alone. And others who hold similar platforms around the world have been emboldened, and in some places, have gained power, with slogans like “Brexit” or “Austria for Austrians” or “Italians first”.

Imagine a world full of people who all put themselves first. It is a world in which the poor are ignored, the weak are pushed aside. It is a world where powerful people take all they can take and leave the less powerful to fend for themselves. It is a world where school children are killed, and no one cares. It is a world where people are ground down by war or poverty, and no one cares. It is a world in which people starve, and no one cares. It is a world where everyone lives in their own little silo, never lifting their eyes beyond their smartphone to notice the struggles and the suffering of others. It is a world that is coming into being in our midst. And it will only grow stronger if we do not do something about it.

To be functionally Trinitarian as Christian people is to realize that we cannot live this way. To be functionally Trinitarian is to recognize that the world I have just described is the very definition of hell. Lisa Sharon Harper notes that at the very beginning of creation, Genesis describes the earth as a “formless void” covered in darkness. Written as the people of Israel were emerging from the Babylonian exile, Lisa suggests that these words are meant to describe the world they were emerging from: a dark world of “misery, destruction, death, ignorance, wickedness, and sorrow.” In the midst of this darkness shines the light of the creating, Trinitarian God. Into this darkness flows the abundant goodness of the three in one. God is described as the antidote to the darkness, the hell, of a world that has abandoned the image in which it is made by ceasing to bring it to life in the in-between spaces.

Jesus came to show us how to attend to the spaces between us to bring the image of God – the goodness of God – to life. That is the kingdom of God that Nicodemus longed to see but which at first seemed so baffling. We, Jesus’ followers, are the people charged with seeing this deep truth of the Trinitarian God. It is up to us to pour out the goodness of God that is in us in the relationships we create, in order that goodness may come into the world. It is up to us to see and to proclaim that we are not 6 billion people leading individual lives on this plant, but that we are one human family, living in intimate embrace. When we are able to live into this calling, to live as functional rather than theoretical Trinitarians, then, like Isaiah, we shall see the wonder of God opened before us. And, like Nicodemus, we will arrive at the tomb of the world as bearers of Resurrection light, the power of God to push back the world’s darkness.

No, the Trinity is not just a doctrine – it is a way of life, it is the very spiritual DNA of creation. If we wish to truly live, we must live according to that DNA. To do otherwise is to distort our own nature, and to distort our relationship with God. The kingdom of God is within us – but that will not matter one bit unless we have the courage to bring it to life between us.

Sunday, May 20
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus’ sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, May 13
Truth about Mothering
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17).

 

  1. In this our cathedral’s year of truth, I have been thinking so much about mothering and motherhood. I am grateful for the holiness I see in the mothers I know. Lately life has conspired to give me many opportunities to appreciate the skill required to intimately care for, and lovingly shaping, another human being.

At the same time Mother’s Day raises unique spiritual challenges. In this great Cathedral some of us badly wanted to have children, or a different form of family life, but were unable to. Some are in the trenches with two year olds and may not be particularly enjoying motherhood right now. Others had adoptions fall through, miscarriages, or recently lost a child. Some of us have contentious or difficult relationships with our children or mothers. Some here are still mourning our mother’s death.

One Mother’s Day, I had a conversation with an extraordinary friend. She shared her agony over not knowing where her son was or where he would sleep that night because of his addictions.

These are the stories you may not think of or hear on Mother’s Day. I bring them up to remind us of the spiritual complexities that lie beneath the surface of every life. We will not all have the privilege and challenge of being mothers. But we do have the chance to care for, “to mother” if you will, another person. I do not know how God is calling us to do this but we might consider it as our homework.

Our gospel today comes from Jesus’ farewell address to his friends. He says goodbye as a kind of spiritual mother. He offers a word of hope, a reminder that God’s spirit protects us. But he also assigns us a responsibility for the world. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17).[1]

Motherhood is not merely a personal matter. Mothering happens or fails to happen at a social level too. This week at a speech in Arizona, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that it is the official policy of our government to separate children from their families if they cross the border without papers.[2] This is not the only sign of a tragic failure to care for children. On Tuesday the president’s office proposed cutting $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.[3]

  1. Russell Banks (1940-) one of the greatest living American novelists has had a special interest in the way adults manipulate children for our own purposes. This morning I will talk about how I both agree and disagree with him. You may have read Banks’ books or seen the movies based on them. They include: Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Rule of the Bone (1995), Cloudsplitter (1998) and others. Although I read his book The Sweet Hereafter twenty-four years ago, it still remains vividly with me. In this story of a small town in New York State a catastrophic school bus accident leads its citizens fight over a class action lawsuit. It shows how adult greed so easily leads to the exploitation of children.

A few years ago at Harvard Divinity School Banks gave the Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality.[4] He follows in the footsteps of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, the theologian Paul Tillich, the scientist Stephen Jay Gould and most recently the novelist Toni Morrison.

Banks is an atheist with a great heart for people’s suffering. For him the fundamentalist faith of his mother is merely a fantasy. The truth of the world lies in a struggle of all against all, as people who have been hurt unthinkingly lash out and harm others. He points out that at their heart all stories are about the present. Historical fiction is merely our code of values projected onto the past. Stories about the future really are about our present anxieties. For Banks death is like this too. He keeps it at arms length.[5]

For Banks the only kind of immortality is one that we experience in the present. He opposes this to what he calls a Woody Allen kind of immortality. Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

In contrast to this, Banks refers to a thought experiment by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler.[6] Imagine if you knew that within thirty years after your death the world and all of humanity were to be utterly destroyed. Scheffler points out that this would fundamentally change how we think and how we behave. For instance, would cancer researchers dedicate their lives to this task with the same enthusiasm? Would we have constructed the new Bay Bridge or this Cathedral? In this way Scheffler reminds us that we are working together on long term projects that we expect to bear fruit after we are gone.

For Russell Banks Scheffler’s story about the future has enormous meaning to the present. The only immortality for him is the way our genes, culture and stories live on in our children. For him children are the afterlife.

But instead of allowing children to flourish for their own purposes we persist on using children to serve our needs. Our culture depersonalizes, objectifies, and commodifies children. Comparing the ancient practice of child sacrifice to modern capitalism, Russell Banks solemnly quotes the Book of Leviticus. “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech…” (Lev. 18:21).[7]

Banks mentions changes in our court system that make children more likely to be treated as adults, that focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation. He also could have added the huge number of children in poverty with no access to good education.[8]

Banks hardly mentioned the way teenagers have their childhoods snatched from them through adult expectations about college.[9] Oddly enough learning and creativity are no longer the emphasis in our schools. Through standardized tests and curricula, relentless focus on competition, year-round sports, we communicate an unwavering message that children are made acceptable only by their accomplishments. In Palo Alto and across the country our children are dying metaphorically and literally because of the stories we are telling them, because it is not enough for them to simply be themselves.

Mostly though Banks refers to the deluge of advertising that colonizes our children’s consciousness. Banks calls the powerful force of materialism Moloch, after the idol in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In his poem “Howl” Alan Ginsberg says, “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!… Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!… Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body!”[10] Like the characters in the movie The Matrix we increasingly float through an unreal existence with our minds tethered to the machine.

At Grace Cathedral and Cathedral School we help children and their parents to resist Moloch. The openness and exploratory quality of childhood is very much alive here six days a week.

Russell Banks and I agree about the threat of Moloch to our children.[11] But for me real life is not like one of his novels. We do not inhabit a bleak, dead world characterized chiefly by everyone exploiting everyone else. Although we fall short of our own expectations and we do not always take in its beauty, we inhabit a living universe in which all things declare the glory of God. Life is not merely a dead-end cul-de-sac in which we race toward certain destruction, but an existence in which we constantly move more deeply into the divine reality as we grow into our potential as children of God.

Russell Banks reminds me how hard it is to live without meaning. This is true not just from an individual psychological perspective. It is hard intellectually. Meaning, even a kind of hopefulness, is a gift we receive from God. For most people it does not make sense to regard ourselves merely as individuals interested only in our own survival, sensual pleasure and well-being. This is because we are fundamentally connected to all creation.

 

This world is our home.  We are invested in it. We want it to flourish even long after we are gone. We might even imagine wanting to live forever in our own apartment. We care about species of animals that we will never see. Our minds reach into the farthest depths of the universe out of a longing that we hardly understand. Russell Banks feels disappointed because he too at some level of his being has an oddly persistent sense that the universe should be full of meaning. For me, this feeling is a kind of voice drawing us home to God.

This brings us back to Jesus’ last prayer. My friend, the New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen says its purpose is to convey the “awesome intimacy” with God which Jesus gives to us.[12] Jesus speaks in the second person singular to the creator of all things. He asks God to, “protect [us] from the evil one,” the one we know as Moloch. We are all God’s children. Jesus says we that do not “belong to the world” of exploitation and hatred. He prays that we will be sanctified in truth.

You and I face many choices about how to think and what to do. But we are not left alone or without hope. The love of Jesus brings us home to God. When we walk in Jesus’ path, we discover that the world is being healed by the creator of mothers and of all good things.

Let us pray: Gracious God, you formed us in the depths beneath our mother’s hearts. You know us from the inside out. Help us to care for the children and to fill the world with kindness and love. We ask this so that Jesus’ joy may be made complete in us. Amen.

[1] This morning we also have Jesus’ last words for his disciples in a prayer from the Gospel of John. The Bible actually has many farewell discourses like this from Jacob (Gen. 47:29-49:33), Joshua (Jos. 22-24), David (1 Chr. 27-29), Moses (Deut. 33), Tobit (Tob 14:3-11), and Paul (Acts 20:17-38). This biblical genre features an announcement about a person’s departure, a statement about God’s great works, a reminder of God’s commands, instructions to love each other and concludes with a prayer.

[2] He said, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.  If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies 2018 Spring Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, Monday, May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-sessions-delivers-remarks-association- state-criminal-investigative

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/usa-routine-separation-of-asylum-seeking-families-violates-international-law/

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/5/8/17327512/sessions-illegal-immigration-border-asylum-families

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-children/u-s-cements-plans-to-separate-families-crossing-border-illegally-idUSKBN1I82AB

[3] https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-leery-of-trumps-cuts-to-childrens-health-program-1525822614

[4] Russell Banks, “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism,” Harvard Divinity School Ingersoll Lecture, 5 November 2015. http://hds.harvard.edu/news/2014/11/05feeding-moloch-sacrifice-children-altar-capitalism

[5] Parenthetically he notes that there are two types of science fiction. Stories where they go here and ones where we go there. In either case these are stories about us right now. Banks seems to agree with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) who uses the following logic to reason that death should mean nothing to us. When we are alive we cannot experience death and when we are dead we cannot experience anything.

[6] “A Philosopher’s Afterlife: We May Die But Others Live On,” National Public Radio, 9 October 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/09/230756192/a-philosophers-afterlife-we-may-die-but-others-live-on

[7] Any of the people… who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death…” Lev. 20:2.

[8] The way marketers treat children as the largest market category. Through television, Disney, Facebook, Twitter, EBay, Amazon, on cell phones and tablets the vast colossus reaches out and colonizes the consciousness of our children. Children become transformed into consumers.

[9] Tom Little and Katherine Ellison, Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools (NY: Norton, 2015).

[10] Alan Ginsberg, “Howl.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179381

[11] This is the impersonal force of greed that lead us to treat people as tools for our pleasure rather than as ends in themselves. We agree that this is most heartbreaking when it comes to the children of the world. Beneath Russell Banks’ words and thoughts lies a profound disappointment with the universe. His weak solution is that writers and musicians in each succeeding generation will reintroduce us to our true nature.

[12] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (New York: T & T Clark, 2005) 367-77.

Sunday, May 6
Joy and Trauma: ‘To us all, love comes.’
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Read sermon

I have one of those unfortunate faces that lapses into a frown in repose. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy or disapproving but my mouth just naturally sits with a downward curve rather than an upward one. This meant that when I was younger I was subject more than most to shouts on the street of ‘smile, darling’ or ‘cheer up, love, it might never happen.’ I longed to have the chutzpah to come up with some wittier response than an ironic fake grin or a hard stare. But I would generally just blush and try hard to remember that ‘pleasing random men’ was not my life’s work.

These sexist, controlling and embarrassing comments were clearly inappropriate and are still a bane on many women’s life. What is more socially acceptable, but potentially no less damaging, are those modern cure-alls of ‘positive thinking’ or ‘being in the moment’. We are told that we only need the right mindset to rise above the sadness and strain of our lives. I’m not a naturally angry person, but this really angers me. No amount of positive thinking is going to lift a depressive illness or make a time of trauma bearable. No focus on being in the moment ever cured cancer or erased the pain of loss.

Which may be a strange way in to a sermon that is taking as its focus those words from the gospel ‘that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.’ But I want to make sure from the start that we find the right foundation for joy, the right focus for joy. A foundation and focus that do not rely on our own ability to think ourselves happy. A foundation and focus that pay attention both to the unhappiness in many of our lives and to the uncontrollability of many of our minds and moods.

There are few experiences lonelier than sitting in a large group of people thinking to yourself that you are the only one who is struggling. That you are the only one who lives with depression or struggles each day against anxiety or who has issues with addiction. That you are the only one who doesn’t have their life together, the only one not able to experience the joy that woman in the pulpit is going on about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness you are very far from alone – mental illness affects 1 in 5 Americans every year, and 1 in 25 find their life severely impacted by it. I would think many more than half of us here have had our own lives or the lives of those we love touched by mental illness.

If our joy as Christians is to be real, to be more than a false smile pasted on because we think God is shouting at us ‘smile darling’, then it has to be a joy that can reach into this reality. There are a couple of theologians who have done some work that can help us here, both working in the field of trauma and faith – Serene Jones and Shelly Rambo. They have attended to the experience of those who have gone through great hardship – sexual abuse, the traumatic stress of warfare – and who have to live with the continuing ripples of this reality.

The reality they deal with is hard. It is the opposite of an easy, happy-clappy triumphalist Christianity. Rambo says: “Life, for many, does not triumph over death. Instead life persists in the midst of death, and death in the midst of life.”[i] Traumatic events do not find closure, they do not get left behind, they shadow us even as we move into a continuation of life. Yet also traumatic events are survivable – they do not end our capacity for living. And she also says: “Redemption is, in essence, a divine love story.”[ii] Somehow we need to locate joy in this mix of anguished survival and divine hopeful love.

Look what it says in the passage from John – Jesus tells us he says these things to us that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete. So what is this joy of Jesus? It is not a joy that floats above suffering. Jesus’ whole ministry has been among people who are suffering – through the demons of their own illness or through the demons of an occupying empire. And Jesus speaks these words to his disciples during the gospel’s farewell discourse – when Jesus is himself preparing to face the trauma of betrayal, torture and death. This cannot be a heedless joy he promises us but something rooted in hard reality. A joy that walks hand in hand with the hard truths of life. A joy grounded in vulnerable love.

Jesus’ joy, and our own, is not a veneer covering over our pain but a life-giving energy in the midst of pain. This is how Serene Jones beautifully puts it: “to be saved is not to be taken elsewhere. It is to be awakened – to mourn and to wonder. And to stand courageously on the promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all – you, and me, and every broken, trauma-ridden soul that wanders through our history. To us all, love comes.”[iii]

Now it is only through this love that comes to us all that joy can come to us all. Not through our own efforts, not through cutting ourselves off from the rest of suffering humanity, not through the power of positive thinking. It is a joy that lives in the sudden wonder of connection, in relationship, in finding our identity as part of the whole glorious and wounded mass of creation. Joy is not the same as safety, nor is it the negation of negative emotions. It is the glimpse of a flowering cherry that reminds us beauty still lives in the world, it’s the touch of a human hand when we thought ourselves forgotten and alone, it’s the awareness that others struggle too and, even with our own woundedness, we can ease their pain.

And there is no ‘ought’ connected to joy. We should never beat ourselves up for not feeling joyful. The same Jesus who calls us to joy was the one who cried out with despair ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’. What we may be able to feel when joy is far away is its faint echo in hope. And when we can’t even feel that we may be able to hold on to the ‘promise that grace is sturdy enough to hold it all’. And when our grip weakens even on this then we can let our faith community hold us and hold this truth in safe keeping till we can open to it again.

And remember that even when we are in the abyss we are not alone. To quote Shelly Rambo again: “Divine and human meet in the middle, and there is an intermingling of breath in the abyss; it is the point at which the silent human cry meets the silent divine cry.”[iv] The God who calls us to joy is also present in its absence, loving us through everything and never abandoning her hurting children. Our most painful breath is breathed by God also.

Oh my dear fellow strugglers I pray that the joy of Jesus may be in you and that your joy may be complete. And I pray that when your joy is far from complete you can still know that grace is sturdy enough to hold you. And I pray that this community may help make real the truth that faith and Easter resurrection attests: “to us all, love comes.” For this is the truth: To us all, love comes.

 

[i] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Westminster Press, 2010, p165.

[ii] Ibid, p153.

[iii] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured Word, Louisville Kentucky: John Knox Press Westminster, 2009, final sentence.

[iv] Spirit and Trauma, p170.

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