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Sunday, January 13
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, January 10
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, January 13
Seeking Reality
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Seeking Reality

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… Do not fear for I am with you” (Isa. 43).

All of us here this morning differ in so many obvious ways. We are different ages and races. We speak dozens of languages and come from hundreds of places. We are messy and neat, rich and poor, exhausted and alert, trying to fit in or hoping to stand out. We have different dreams, desires and beliefs.

But below the surface we share in common something profound. We all are seeking what is real. We hunger for it. You know what I mean. We encounter some much superficiality, so many half-truths and lies. And so we understand what it feels like to come across someone who really gets us. We appreciate someone who can be true.[1]

Peter Haynes was my priest in college. He is one of the most real people I know. He chooses words cautiously. He respects me enough to care more about being honest than whether or not I feel comfortable. He doesn’t hesitate to correct me. When I became dean of the Cathedral he drove six hours from Orange County just to shake my hand after the service. Then he drove six hours back home. He said the look on my face made it all worth it.

Although he once was the physically strongest priest in the Diocese he is frail and weak now. Yesterday I asked him what baptism means. He said that we are body, mind and soul. He pointed out that bodies and minds get a lot of attention in our society. But the challenge of our time is the world of the spirit.

For instance, fear drives us in irrational ways. I’m not just talking about the border wall. You can see this everywhere. We simply don’t feel right. In one of the richest societies in human history we feel impoverished, hounded by scarcity. We face an epidemic of despair. We see it in various addictions, rising levels of depression, isolation and loneliness. It lies behind our rising suicide rates and broken politics.

Peter Haynes says that baptism is the beginning of a spiritual life. It is how we start to tend our spiritual nature, how we receive the Spirit. The Bible is a library of different books written by different authors for different times and places. But the idea of a beloved child is a recurring theme. Think of all those joyful announcements about long awaited children being born.

Isaiah gives us a love letter from God. Shut your eyes and really try to hear this. “[T]hus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob he formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned… Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” (Isa. 43).

God calls Jesus his “beloved Son” and through him we become God’s children too. We are spiritually healthy when God’s love for us is most real. Through baptism with water and the Holy Spirit we encounter this reality. The bread and wine we share every week remind us that God loves us too much to leave us on our own.

Today I offer three very simple observations from the story of Jesus’ baptism about spiritual healing and strength.

  1. Chaff. With so much fear all around it is sometimes hard not to read the Bible in a fearful way. Luke uses a metaphor that we find confusing. He reports a short speech by John in which he talks about a “winnowing fork” and clearing the “threshing floor,” gathering the wheat into the granary and burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3). The Greek word for unquenchable is asbesto, the root of our word asbestos.

I want to be very clear. This metaphor is not about good people going to heaven and bad ones being burned in hell. It is about repentance or more precisely it is about the primary spiritual task called metanoia. That’s the Greek word we translate as repentance. It means to transform your life and soul.

At harvest each grain of wheat has a husk. The goal is not to separate good wheat from bad wheat but to save every grain. This is not a metaphor of separation and judgment. It is a metaphor of preservation and purification. The grain and the husks are thrown together into the air and the wind disperses the lighter husks.

There are large parts of ourselves that we will have to let go of in order to be happy, and for that matter to be part of God’s Kingdom. It is as if we were carrying a huge backpack that extended high over our heads and around our sides. As we approach a narrow gate we realize that not everything we carry will fit through.

Envy, anxiety, gossip, insecurity, prejudice, greed, our sense of superiority, narcissism, a spirit of revenge, along with so much else these have to go. The spirit helps to sift through our lives to make us more perfect. In his book The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis writes about this process of letting go of what is false. He says, “heaven is reality.”[2]

  1. Humility. The second thing I want to point out about the reading involves two seemingly inconsequential words. The preacher Fred Craddock says these may be the most important words in the Bible.[3] They are “Jesus also.” The passage goes like this. After John’s speech about the chaff, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying… the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form” (Lk. 3). “Jesus also.”

The writers of the Bible all agree that baptism is for repentance or metanoia. It exists to transform our souls. Although Jesus does not need repentance, although God does not need to change anything about himself, God comes among us in this startling way. If God can join humanity in this ritual of renewal, we too can live humbly. We need to reject all forms of arrogance and not put ourselves above others. Christians should always be seeking forgiveness, focusing on what we need to change about ourselves rather than on how others could be better.

  1. Prayer. The last simple thing you might have noticed in the Gospel has to do with prayer. The people have been baptized. Jesus himself has been baptized. Then Jesus prays and the Holy Spirit comes to him. And God’s voice announces, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk. 3).

Our bodies require nutrition and exercise. Our minds need ideas, language and connections to other people. Prayer is the most important action for our spiritual life. We must have both what we call common prayer, that is prayer with other people in church, and individual prayer. In the New York Times this week Farhad Manjoo wrote an article called “You should Meditate Every Day.” It is about how meditation has completely improved his life.[4] It can help you too.

Prayer is the way we overcome the destructive fantasies we constantly generate and come to know something greater. It is the way we stop being a stranger to our self. It needs to be part of every day. We should set aside regular times for prayer and pray spontaneously too. As parents we should spend over ten years reading every night to our children. After you read tell your children what you are praying for and ask what they would like to pray for. Then say the Lord’s Prayer together. Pray at meals. Pray in the morning when you wake up, as you travel and as you prepare to sleep.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth writes, “And faith as the work of the Holy Spirit is not a magical transformation. It is not a higher endowment with divine powers. It is simply that we acquire what we so much need… a teacher of truth within ourselves.”[5] That teacher is Christ. This is the way we realize that because we are God’s children we have nothing to fear.

I vividly remember the day when I became a parent. I was standing at the hospital window, watching commuters on their way home as the sun was setting after a long summer day. I remember the light. It felt like such a contrast. The drivers were engaged in such an ordinary activity while for me the world seemed miraculous and utterly transformed. In that moment I knew everything had changed. I came closer to reality and to God.

We long for what is real. We won’t be satisfied by anything else. So cultivate your spiritual life. Purify yourself of the anxiety, fear and selfishness that diminishes you. Be humble and don’t regard yourself as better than anyone else. Persist in prayer so that Christ might shine more completely in your life. Never forget that you are “precious in [God’s] sight, and honored” and God loves you.

[1] It might even be bad news but we want to know the truth.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 69.

[3] This particular example and much else in this sermon is inspired by Matt and Liz Boulton, “Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two,” 7 January 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/1/7/jesus-also-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-two.

[4] Farhad Manjoo, “You Should Meditate Every Day,” The New York Times, 9 January 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/opinion/meditation-internet.html

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. T. Thomson, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 242.

Thursday, January 10
The Star at its Rising
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Thursday's 5:15pm Evensong Service
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The Star at its Rising

“There ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising” (Mt. 2).

Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die.

Last night at dinner Sarah Kay the poet and our former Artist in Residence told me about a college party at Brown University called Sex Power God. In short it is famous for having students dancing around in their underwear. The year before she arrived there the Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly sent an undercover reporter to video the event. Sarah described in detail how friends suddenly saw themselves half naked on television and worried about whether this would affect their careers.[i]

For years she forgot about the whole thing. Then last summer Sarah met a new friend who we will call Janet. They instantly recognized each other as soul mate. Janet is a filmmaker and a woman of color. When Sarah told her that she had gone to Brown, her friend said, “Oh” in the way people usually do when they had applied and not been accepted.

Janet explained that she loved Brown. The college had heavily recruited her in high school. Each week during the track season, Brown had called her coach to find out her times. In fact, Janet was not just accepted as an undergraduate but also into a special program that guaranteed her admission to medical school. It all seemed settled.

Then one day she came home as her father was turning off the television. He had been watching the Bill O’Reilly show. He had seen the episode about the party and told her that she was not allowed to go to Brown. Sarah feels convinced that the two would have been close friends in college and couldn’t help but wonder how this event changed the course of Janet’s life.

Change lies at the heart of all things. We are always accepting invitations or turning them down, embracing new possibilities or trying to shelter ourselves from change. During the Season of Epiphany we look for the light. We also listen for how God calls us out of our old habits and into a new relationship of love and gratitude with the world. We recognize that what we do and how we live matters for people who we haven’t even met.

In our Lessons and Carols service tonight we have three stories about invitation and persistence. The Magi leave everything behind to follow a star. At first they meet an insecure tyrant whose fear leads him to kill children. They persist in seeking. Ultimately they are, “overwhelmed with joy” when they encounter the baby Jesus (Mt. 2).

In the wilderness John thought that he understood what it would be like when the Messiah came. But he had to change. He had to accept the idea that he would baptize the Messiah. And when he did he saw, “the Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Mt. 3).

Finally at first Jesus himself seemed to imagine that his first miracle would involve a more weighty matter than providing wine for a wedding party. But his mother invited him to help and something moved him to begin his public ministry at that party.

Maybe you will be at a party when God calls you. Perhaps you will be at a track meet or in a newsroom or sitting watching television or in the wilderness or at Grace Cathedral.

Nothing stays the same. No matter who you are, life is a pilgrimage. In body or spirit we either adapt to change or we die. Listen for God. Persist in your calling. Do not be afraid to change your plans. Allow Jesus to transform the ordinary water of your life into something more. Let the star of God’s grace guide you.

[i] Meryl Rothstein, “Fox News airs footage of Sex Power God,” The Brown Daily Herald, 15 November 2005. http://www.browndailyherald.com/2005/11/15/fox-news-airs-footage-of-sex-power-god/

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, October 28
Sunday Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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Sunday, October 21
Booking My Place
Preacher: The Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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It is easy for us to condemn James and John for trying to book the left and right hand seats in heaven for themselves. Maybe we should ask ourselves how often, and how we try and book our own spaces next to Jesus.

Sunday, October 14
The Truth About Wealth: We Lack One Thing
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword… it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4).

 

The truth about wealth is simple. You are poor. No matter who you are, or what you have, it will not be enough to save yourself.

Bruce Springsteen writes, “People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three… It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible.”[1]

We know deep in our hearts that wealth cannot really protect us – and yet our possessions still own us. Somehow we cannot transcend this myth. And no one around us seems able to either.

Jesus is going on the way, the road. Hodon, that’s the Greek word for it. Before the name Christian became popular, “the way” was what they called the movement. It was how Jesus’ disciples referred to themselves. So Jesus is traveling the way, or the path of faith. Suddenly a rich man throws himself down before him in the same manner as people seeking healing beg for Jesus’ help.

The man asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (Mk. 10)? From the start Jesus seems to bristle at the question as if its assumptions are all wrong. You can almost hear Jesus sigh and say that eternal life is not some kind of prize rewarded for intense spiritual effort. God’s love is not something that anyone can win or inherit. In Jesus’ words, “no one is good but God alone.”

Jesus instructs him to keep the commandments. And when the man says he has, Jesus gazes at him.[2] Jesus loves him. He says, “You lack one thing… sell what you own… give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” The shocked man goes, “away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples can’t believe it. For them, and often for us, wealth seems like a blessing from God, not a barrier to spiritual wholeness. And Jesus says, “For God all things are possible.” This morning I have a simple question for you. What was it that this man lacked?

Followers of Jesus’ way have struggled with this story for two thousand years. Some have interpreted it as a justification for monastic vows of poverty. Others have written that Jesus’ instruction is a diagnosis only for this particular man, or for a select number of special believers. Not even the disciples who followed Jesus sold their property and gave the proceeds to the poor.

From St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in the second century to now there has been no shortage of theologians who have said that this story is not ultimately about money at all. They suggest it is about spiritual pride, or it is against our tendency to think that what we have done obliges God to give us eternal life in return.[3] I think Jesus’ story is about the connection between our deepest longings and God.

On Tuesday night after our Yoga practice I interviewed the Christian theologian Matthew Fox with Lama Tsomo an American born Tibetan Buddhist.[4] Lama Tsomo described going to bed on the eve of her eighth birthday wondering what she should wish for when she blew out the candles. That night she realized that the wisest wish was to be happy. She made that wish every year until she became a teenager but throughout her life she never seemed to come closer to actually being happy.

When her children were young she tried meditating but she wasn’t sure if it was working. After studying Jungian psychology she went to live in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. She describes her loneliness and how difficult it was to learn Tibetan.

Her breakthrough came when she realized that each person is like an ocean wave. We desperately do everything we can to preserve our sense of individuality and uniqueness. When we regard ourselves as only one “splinter of reality” we have immense needs – for social approval, success, etc. But really what we long for is to return to the vast ocean, which has no need because it encompasses everything. In short we desire to experience ourselves as part of the whole.[5]

Yesterday I looked Lama Tsomo up on Wikipedia and discovered that she is an heir to the Hyatt hotel chain. She is worth 1.77 billion dollars. Suddenly her story about a search for happiness and a longing to overcome her sense of isolation came to have a different kind of poignancy.

Jesus’ story is a spiritual message about our need for wholeness but it is also a material and economic one too. In the Book of Acts the first followers of the way lived together in Jerusalem, sold their individual property, and shared it with each other “as any had need” (Acts 2:45). The biblical ideal from the gospels (Lk. 14:33) and the Book of Acts is holding property in common. For those who pay attention this is part of the scandal of Christian faith.[6]

Wealth means something different in every generation. I want to point out three things that we are learning about money today. First, meritocracy has become a kind of idol for us. We believe that the rich deserve their wealth and that the rest of society should have no claim on it. This blind belief is driving a lurch toward oligarchy.

I recommend very highly Thomas Piketty’s book Capital: In the Twenty-First Century. In it he describes the simple mechanism behind this. Changes in the tax code around the year 1980 are leading to vast differences between the wealthy and the poor. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s the highest tax bracket never went below 70 percent (now it is 39.6%).[7]

Since 1980 the richest 1 percent have absorbed nearly 60 percent of the increase in national income. The top ten percent owns 72 percent of the wealth in the United States. The bottom 50 percent owns only 2 percent of all wealth.[8] We could be on a path toward a future in which there is no middle class.

Second, we have just begun to measure just how destructive poverty can be to the human spirit. Last week our forum guest Robert Sapolsky described poverty as a national health crisis. Children born poor are more likely to suffer neurological effects for the rest of their lives. “By age five, the lower a child’s socioeconomic status on average, the (a) higher the basal glucocorticoid levels…, the thinner the frontal cortex… the poorer the working memory, emotion regulation, impulse control, and executive decision-making.”[9] Childhood adversity makes you more likely to struggle as an adult with alcohol and drug addiction and with depression.

Third, Sapolsky also points out scientific evidence that suggests that having more wealth leads people to have less empathy, to be less adept at recognizing people’s emotions and even more likely to cheat or steal. If they are told at the end of a study that the leftover candy goes to children, they take more candy than the others.[10]

Overall inequality leads to a society with lower amounts of social capital, that is one that has fewer civic organizations from churches, fraternal orders, bowling leagues, arts subscribers, neighborhood improvement groups and lower participation in politics.

The Dalai Lama tells a story about the Buddha’s visit to a great king. On the way to the palace the Buddha met a beggar who praised the king and smiled as he spoke about the great beauty of the palace. It was a tradition after the meal to say a blessing, to assign the good karma of the meal to an important person. But instead of dedicating the merit to the host, the Buddha chose the beggar standing outside.

His monks couldn’t believe it. They asked why he chose the beggar instead of the king. The Buddha answered that the king was filled with pride in showing off the kingdom but the beggar who had nothing could rejoice in the king’s good fortune.[11] We too can learn to take pleasure in another person’s joy.

There is a space between renouncing everything and a life of total selfishness. That is the world we inhabit. We may have very little control over tax policies but through generosity we can live in a way shaped by God’s love. In our actions we can recognize both that we have not all been given an equal chance, and that wealth can cut us off and isolate us.

What did the rich man lack? I’m not sure. Maybe he just couldn’t trust God.

Brothers and sisters please do not go away from this place grieving that the way of Jesus is too demanding. In these days of greed and inequality we can hold onto those moments of grace when one plus one equals three. Let us move beyond a narrow focus on our own inheritance, beyond the conviction that we are solely responsible for our success or failure. Let us allow God to transform our generosity and our whole life.

We are poor. But Jesus sees us, loves us and calls us – because, “for God all things are possible.”

 

#RobertSapolsky, #ThomasPiketty, #inequality

[1] Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (NY: Simon & Schuster: 2016) 236-7.

[2] The Greek word emblepo means to gaze or to consider.

[3] In Clement of Alexandria’s treatise “Who is the Rich Man Who Is Saved?” he writes that wealth can be a serious spiritual problem. Ultimately he writes that Jesus’ words are not to be taken literally. The rich can cultivate a kind of spiritual poverty.

[4] We discussed their book. Matthew Fox and Lama Tsomo, The Lotus and the Rose: A Conversation Between Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Christianity (Namchak Publishing, 2018).

[5] The ocean has no need it encompasses everything. Ibid, 30.

[6] David Bentley Hart, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?” The New York Times, 4 November 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/04/opinion/sunday/christianity-communism.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=0

[7] The highest rate today is 39.6% for households making $444,551 or more. https://bradfordtaxinstitute.com/Free_Resources/Federal-Income-Tax-Rates.aspx. https://bradfordtaxinstitute.com/Free_Resources/Federal-Income-Tax-Rates.aspx.

[8] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014) 297, 257.

[9] This comes from a study by Martha Farah and Tim Boyce. See Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 194-7.

[10] Whether a car stops to help someone in need is inversely related to its value. Wealthier people are also more likely to regard the class system as fair and meritocratic, and to believe that their success has more to do with their own ability and hard work rather than other factors. Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 533-4.

[11] Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY: Penguin, 2016) 141-2.

Tuesday, October 9
Yoga Introduction
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Tuesday Night's Yoga Introduction
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Facing Fear

Welcome to this place of peace and hope. This is a spiritual home for you. It is where healing happens. It is where we encounter beauty, holiness, what some people call God, and what others are content to think of as the Mystery of our existence. Many find a sense of purpose here that enables them to do great things out in the world.

My cousin came home from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Before going overseas she had been such a happy and light person. She was quick to smile and always ready for fun. She just wasn’t herself when she came back. A doctor would say that PTSD made her over-reactive to mild stimulus and then slow to calm down again.

The primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky was our preacher this Sunday. He said that over the last twenty years we have learned a huge amount about the effect that PTSD has on people’s brains. The same part of our brains, the amygdala regulates both fear and aggression. It is so sensitive that it responds to stimuli that the cortex fails to notice.[1]

Sapolsky points out that neuroplasticity, the growing of neural pathways in our brains, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand we can learn a Beethoven piano Sonata or to speak a language without hesitation or to balance on a skateboard. But it is also the way we learn fear. Persistent exposure to fear enlarges our amygdala.

So what are we to do about this – how can we find our way back to peace? Sapolsky points out that we “don’t passively forget that something is scary. We actively learn that it isn’t anymore.”[2] We have to learn a new way to respond to what has made us afraid in the past.

My yoga practice is an essential part of this for me. It involves changing my body and my mind. Instead of reacting out of fear, anger, hurt, wounded pride, a desire to revenge or dismiss, I learn to listen, to see things from another’s perspective. I learn to see to the blessings that we are receiving in every moment.

Robert Sapolsky is also an expert on stress. I asked him what he learned in studying a baboon troop in East Africa for decades. He said that as a young man he thought that the happiest baboons would be the alphas, the ones at the top of the dominance hierarchy. What he learned over the years is that the most happy baboons have the best social connections. They are the ones that groom, visit  and care for each other.

Families are complicated and I’m sad to say that I’m not sure how my cousin is doing in her struggle. I don’t know what you have experienced in the past or what fears you continue to wrestle with today.

But I do know that you have come to a place of healing and connection. I pray that the beauty of this place filters deep into your soul and that you will bring the compassion you learn for yourself on the mat to the people who need you in the world.

Theme: Facing Fear

 

[1] Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 40.

[2] Ibid, 38.

Sunday, October 7
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: Robert Sapolsky
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sunday, September 30
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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