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Sunday, April 22
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, April 19
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, April 1
Easter Sunday Eucharist
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Tuesday, March 28
The Office of Tenebrae
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Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, April 22
The Still Waters of Psalm 23 and Beyoncé
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Ps. 23).

  1. This weekend my twenty-eight year old nephew took me aside and in a serious tone of voice he asked, “Uncle Malcolm I’ve watched you for my whole life. Why you are so joyful?” I fumbled for words. I don’t know if I’m any more joyful than the next person, but the first thing that occurred to me was that I pray a lot. My heart longs for and constantly reaches toward God. I pray for my family and you, for strangers, for sufferers and leaders, for our shared human project and for all creation.

Most of all I just give thanks, and in doing this I become more attuned to the blessings available to us in every moment. I certainly experience stress and despair, feelings of failure and inadequacy. I feel sadness in the face of persistent suffering, but these all happen in the context of a much deeper sense that before anything else I am a child of God.

A Hindu teacher named Eknath Easwaran taught me to meditate and encouraged me to memorize Psalm 23. Since then, I have repeated it silently thousands of times. It sums up my piety. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake” (Ps. 23).

When we really listen, God does bring us to a spiritual state that you could compare to a green pasture with still waters. God directs our lives, “along right pathways.” And then an extraordinary thing happens in this psalm. The God of the third person, “the Lord,” “the He” comes nearer and becomes… a “you.” In grammar we call it the second person. Listen to how in the presence of our suffering God comes even nearer. This experience lies at the heart of my faith.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you [you] are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…” (Ps. 23). I believe that this personal experience of God, especially as we gather in worship around this table, lies at the heart of abiding joy. Today I am going to talk about two teachers who were good shepherds bringing me to green pastures, and about an experience of God spreading a table in the presence of those who trouble me.

  1. The eleventh century thinker Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) defined theology as faith seeking understanding. He says that our active love of God naturally seeks a deeper knowledge of God.[1] To understand this faith in God’s daily ongoing presence I spent seven years of work as a more than fulltime graduate student. In that time I felt God leading me into some of the greenest pastures of my life.

Two theology professors particularly influenced me. Richard R. Niebuhr (1925-2017) served as one of my three dissertation advisors. His father (H. Richard Niebuhr) and uncle (Reinhold Niebuhr) were two of the most famous twentieth century theologians. Gordon D. Kaufman (1925-2011) supervised my Master’s thesis. Although I have not often spoken to you explicitly about them they have deeply shaped my thought.

Professor Niebuhr taught me that above all we are symbol-generating creatures. We never make contact with anything as it is in itself. Every experience is filtered through stories and the symbols that support them. It is impossible to get to the unmediated bottom of reality in any sense.

For instance, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger points out we don’t just hear raw sounds and then figure out what they are.[2] When we hear the bell of the cable car or the carillon, they already mean something to us. And this meaning depends on the stories we tell about life. A cathedral bell might be uplifting to a person of faith and oppressive to someone who has been persecuted by the church. We don’t experience the sound without that sort of interpretation.

Niebuhr believed deeply in the power of feeling which connects us to God and each other. He writes about our situation in modern times with communications technologies like the Internet constantly impinging on us and directing our inner life. Our identities are constantly being rearranged by the latest tragedy broadcasted to us through our cell phones. He asks, “is it not possible that [the modern person] is experiencing the terrible joy of being made and remade again by a ruling power that [she] knows but does not know [she] knows?”[3]

He says, “human faith is not so much a sum of answers as it is a way of seeing and acting and books about faith have first of all to describe what faithful [people] see and believe is real.”

Although the two of them had the same advisor in graduate school together, Professor Kaufman could hardly have been more different that Niebuhr. While Niebuhr emphasized art and feeling, Kaufman worked to describe the place of faith in the world of science.

After writing an influential theology textbook Kaufman had a change of heart. He came to the deep conviction that theology is not about recovering a tradition or interpreting holy texts. Instead he emphasized that theology is what he calls “imaginative construction.” Human beings have responsibility for the symbols that they make for describing God.

Kaufman believed that human beings have a tremendously strong tendency to treat the wrong things as if they were God. Our idols may be personal like money, our appearance or being liked, or they may be our collective experience of the country or the economy. For him above all the symbol God helps us to commit ourselves to the right things.

On this Earth Day Kaufman would probably say that the symbol of God may be the only thing that could save nature, perhaps even the planet, from our worship of wealth, technology and power. The idea of God shows us that with our lives we worship the wrong things.

Most of all Kaufman had a heart for modern people who simply could not believe what a lot of churches say about God. He writes, “Faith in God has become impossible for many now, not so much because of stiffnecked sinfulness and rebellion against God as because talk about God… seems to have little to do with their actual lives. Unless… God can be seen once again to be the God of this world and our God, it is not possible… to have faith in him.”[4]

Kaufman taught about the importance of resisting our tendencies toward tribalism. For the sake of the world, he believed that every one of us, every Christian in every generation, must constantly seek new ways to understand and talk about God.

  1. At Grace Cathedral we worry that some churches may be making faith impossible for many people today. Churches do this through outright bigotry, by refusing to see that every person is made in God’s image. We do this through an attitude of fear toward outsiders, as if God cannot be found outside of a church. We do this through a kind of attachment to interpretations of stories that makes it hard to see how God is doing a new thing right now.

This week has not been easy. We received a lot of angry letters from our Christian brothers and sisters. News reports led some to conclude that the Cathedral is worshiping the pop music star Beyoncé. Some friends who are closer feel like what we are doing is in bad taste and maybe worse. I need to give you some background and share what I have been telling people about this issue.

Every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m. we offer a contemporary worship service called The Vine. Our 2018 Cathedral theme of “truth” inspired its leaders to create a three part sermon series called “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story.” On the last day of the series we wanted to especially raise up the voices of women of color so we invited Yolanda Norton to preach. You may remember Yolanda from her January sermon here. At San Francisco Theological Seminary she teaches a course called “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.”

Leaders of our small thirty-person Vine community decided to offer a “Beyoncé Mass” to celebrate in a Christian context what they see as the singer’s message of empowerment for women of color. From my perspective it is not entirely unlike the spirit animating the Duke Ellington Sacred Music concert in 1965.

We have been surprised by how much attention this service has generated. Over a thousand people could conceivably come here for it on Wednesday night. On balance although a small number of our community think that it’s not a good idea, we have received an overwhelmingly positive response from faithful people who recognize that we need to reach out to the world.

We have also received letters that have made me even more aware of virulent racism and homophobia among our fellow Christians. Certainly not everyone who hates the service is a racist. I’m just been surprised by what I have heard.

My heart definitely goes out to Episcopalians who feel embarrassed by the service and I know we have made mistakes in how we have handled various aspects of it. At the same time over the last few days I have learned a lot from Beyoncé. It has been emotionally exhausting just being modestly connected to her for a week. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be her all the time.

Above all I’ve learned how important it is to connect. God’s spirit is moving through the world and I believe that not doing anything to reach out to the next generation of San Franciscans is a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So in short brothers and sisters this may not have been my most joyful week. It has not been as calm as those years of theological study with teachers I love. But you know what? My heart still rejoices. Whether we are in the green pastures beside still waters, or in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we are in the presence of those who trouble us – we shall not be in want. God revives our souls. Indeed we thank you God, that you, you are with us.

[1] Anselm, Proslogion.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

[3] Richard R. Niebuhr, Experiential Religion (NY: Harper and Row, 1972) 140.

[4] Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd Edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholar’s Press, 1995) 74.

Tuesday, April 17
The Voice Behind All Things
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Tuesday April 17th Yoga Introduction
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The Voice Behind All Things

We have all heard a voice. It offers us guidance and direction, and sometimes even warns us. It is so ubiquitous that, when we know where we are going, it just fades quietly into the background and we cease to notice it at all.

We hear it in hospitals, subway systems and 250 airports around the world. It may be one of the most frequently heard voices in all history. Although you may have doubted whether this public address system voice belongs to a real person, it does.

Her name is Carolyn Hopkins. She lives in Northern Maine. She makes the recordings in her own house and emails them to the public address company. When asked about what makes people around the world prefer her voice she guesses that they might hear the smile behind it.

In the 1980’s Wim Wenders film Der Himmel Über Berlin (The Wings of Desire) invisible angels can hear the thoughts of people as they go past. In one scene the angel walks through a library hearing what is in every person’s heart.

In our heads we all carry voices that we recognize. Some of these may be disapproving voices that point out our failures and our limitations. They say things like “You can’t do this!” or, “they never loved you,” or, “you’re just like your father” or, “your brother was always better than you.”

Sometimes I think those voices of our thoughts become so dominant, so loud or constant, that we cannot really hear what is happening. This cathedral has different sounds. The woosh of the cable cars, the rain against the stained glass windows, the wind blowing over Nob Hill. One of the most beautiful sounds to me is that of preparation as people get ready for Yoga. A kind of spirit speaks to us in these moments that we often don’t recognize.

Eknath Easwaran started an ashram in Petaluma and was the one who taught me to meditate. He introduced me to the idea that if we can learn to lay our busy thoughts to the side, we might experience more moments of divinity, the holy.

He taught a form of passage meditation. I want to share one of my favorite passages with you tonight. It comes from St. Augustine’s autobiography Confessions.[1]

“Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still; if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:”

“Imagine if all things that are perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever – imagine, then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of him who made them and not to that of his creation;”

“So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of [people], nor the voice of angels, nor the cloud’s thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things.”

“And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but this one vision which ravishes and absorbs and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination which leaves us breathless:”

“Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, Enter thou into the joy of the Lord?”

When I am with you on Tuesday nights I hear this voice. When we are together I can hear the smile behind all creation.

Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple

[1] Translation of Augustine’s Confessions by Michael N. Nagler in Eknath Easwaran, God Makes the Rivers to Flow (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1991) 171.

Past Sermons

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

Wednesday, February 14
Ash Wednesday Evening Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
Sermon from Ash Wednesday's service of The Vine
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Wednesday, February 14
Ash Wednesday 12:10 Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Ash Wednesday's 12:10 Eucharist
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Wednesday, February 14
Ash Wednesday 7:30 Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Sermon from Ash Wednesday's 7:30 Eucharist
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Sunday, February 11
Always Transfiguring
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here…”” (Mark 9)

  1. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” As the Olympian Lowell Bailey looks down the cross-country skiing course before the biathlon he repeats these words from Teddy Roosevelt to calm himself and to prepare. Immediately before the start he imagines being an arrow fitted into a flexed bow ready to be shot.[1]

Where do you go in your imagination to seek peace or find strength? Sometimes I imagine the snow falling and the sound of the wind against the storm windows of the little second floor apartment where we lived in Cambridge as graduate students. Inspired by a Chinese martial arts film we named that place “Happy Woods.”

I feel the same way about Grace Cathedral. I always picture it in my mind’s eye with the light filtering in on a Sunday morning just like this. In Peter’s words “it is good to be here.” I wonder if later when times got hard, Peter, James and John remembered that time on the mountain when they saw Jesus transfigured before them and talking to Elijah and Moses.

When I was a young child I liked to sit halfway up the stairs.[2] The world looked different from that vantage point. Perhaps I appreciated lingering a little in a place that most people just passed by without thinking.

Today we as stand in a similar place in the church calendar between Epiphany and Lent. Through Epiphany the truth of Jesus became more fully revealed each week. During Lent, if we do it right, we will learn who we are when we stand before God. Some try to accomplish this by abstaining from alcohol, drugs, caffeine or sugar. Others do it through additional prayer disciplines, the service of others or by changing their daily habits. I’m leading a Monday night Bible Study for people whose Lenten discipline is attending more thoughtfully to God’s Word.

  1. John structures his gospel around increasingly powerful signs that Jesus is the Son of God. These begin with the way Jesus changes water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and lead up to reviving Jesus’ dead friend Lazarus. John does this to establish that Jesus is the Son of God and that he is a new kind of Messiah.

Mark takes a different approach. Instead of increasingly significant signs, Mark reveals the truth of Jesus all at once in an incandescent moment on a mountaintop. We call it the Transfiguration. The Greek word metamorphoō or metamorphosis means to change form (Mk. 9:2).

The transfiguration occurs at the midpoint of Mark’s Gospel. If we take the last place named as a likely nearby location (Caesarea Philippi), this would put them on Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Syro-Palestine.[3] Psalm 133 mentions it. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity… It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.”[4]

Two weeks ago I talked about the deeper structures of Mark (the chiasmus in Mark 1:21-8).[5] For him the Transfiguration functions as a kind of hinge or fulcrum, a bridge between the two movements of his great symphony.[6]

In the ascending first eight chapters Mark writes about the surprising healing and liberation that people experience in Jesus. Jesus undoes even the damage we cause ourselves through our inmost thoughts. In the midst of our blindness to our real situation, he makes us see again.

The last eight chapters describe Jesus’ descent. They show the suspicion, fear and alienation of the authorities who condemn him. They describe the experience of being abandoned by your friends and then suffering torture and death.

Between these two movements we have the Transfiguration. Again the context matters, it follows perhaps the most difficult and disturbing teaching in the Bible. When Jesus plainly describes the way he will suffer and die Peter tries to convince him to take another path. Jesus says, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). In the Transfiguration we see one of the ways that God gets us through the darkest points of our lives.

The structure of Mark, with the transfiguration at its apex also helps us to imagine a different kind of Messiah. The old messiahs were conquering generals who cast out the occupying armies and liberated their peoples with the sword. They were the guys in the white hats and yet not much different from their violent adversaries. In contrast, Jesus, the beloved of God, is a gentle Messiah. His suffering and death undoes the absolute power of death forever.

The point of all this is not to convince you about something that happened in the past. Mark wants you to understand the mystery of Jesus as the Messiah and to experience Christ’s presence in your life now.

Imagine Elisha following the prophet Elijah from our story in Second Kings as other prophets tell him that the Lord will soon take his friend (2 Kings 2). We walk with Jesus in the same way. Watching what he does, imitating him, praying and gathering together as he taught us, this all leads us to we experience God in the way that Jesus does – as beloved children responding in gratitude to our benevolent father.

Imagine Peter and James and John walking with their friend into the scrublands, and cold mists of Mt. Hermon… They walk up into the clouds and into the most profound spiritual experience of their lives. God draws back the curtain of creation. They encounter a kind of freedom from the ordinary rules of time and space. The world shines with the brightness of heaven.

Moses who “knew God face to face” (Deut. 34:10), and Elijah who heard God in “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), he was the prophet who never died – these two talk with their friend Jesus. Peter feels both terrified and compelled to respond (Mark uses the Greek word apokritheis which means to answer or reply, Mk. 9:5). No one has ever given me a satisfactory explanation of his behavior, but he offers to build three shrines (or tents or dwellings). He seems to be trying to domesticate or perpetuate this moment, this glimpse of perfection, this experience of heaven. Saying, “it is good for us to be here,” seems like the greatest understatement in history.

In an instant these ordinary blundering men become like the spiritual legends. God speaks to them. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mk. 9)! And God speaks to us also.

  1. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) taught at the University of Chicago and was one of the twentieth century’s most famous scholars of religion. He believed that a theophany, the revelation of God, was essential for giving structure and orientation to the world.[7] This experience of the Holy One establishes a sacred order and gives a pattern essential for human flourishing.

I have talked about how the Transfiguration does this, how it can open a door to experiencing the ongoing presence of Christ. Meeting God in this way gives us the miraculous power to take up our own cross and follow him. With God’s help we can live more often in this experience of unity with the Divine. One of the primary mottos of the Protestant Reformation was “Ecclesia semper reformanda.” It is Latin and means that the church is always reforming. I wonder if we can live in a way that we can always see the world being transfigured by God (Semper Transfiguro).

On those snowy days back when I lived in that little Cambridge apartment I used to take my toddler son to the library where we would pick out music recordings. One day we brought back the composer Philip Glass’ (1937-) opera Einstein on the Beach. I had never heard anything like it. At the beginning of his career people felt offended by the strangeness of his music as if the composer were toying with them. They even sought to disrupt his concerts.[8] I didn’t know at all what to think of it at first, with its repetitions and the strange overtones and beats that suddenly arise. But it opened a door for me into a form of music that I now love.

In his memoir Glass writes about the way that music provokes what he calls epiphanies or experiences of transcendence. We get easily get caught up in the technique of art without fully realizing its central role in changing the way we perceive the world. He writes, “Drawing is about seeing, dancing is about moving, writing… is about speaking, and music is about hearing… I realized that music training was absolutely about learning to hear – going completely past everyday listening.” For me living is about praying as we give thanks for God’s gifts in every moment of our awareness.

The twentieth century poet from Carmel Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) finds a similar transforming experience in paying close attention to nature. He writes, “Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man. / Things are so beautiful, your love will follow you eyes.”[9]

In a passage I have used for meditation St. Augustine writes, “Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with our busy thoughts about earth, sea, and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind cease thinking about itself, go beyond itself and be quite still… so that we should hear… [God] the very Self which in all… things we love.”[10]

I began by asking where you go to find peace and strength. It is good to be here, halfway up the stairs between Epiphany and Lent. Your life does not need to be perfect to see God happening all around us. The world looks transfigured to those who see through the eyes of faith. During this Holy Lent I invite you to see how Christ is traveling with you, how God is transfiguring your life. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

 

#PhilipGlass, #Transfiguration, #RobinsonJeffers, #EknathEaswaran, #truth

[1] Margaret Cheatham Williams, Alexandra Garcia and Andrew Khosravani, “Before the Gun at a Biathlon Race,” The New York Times, 10 February 2018

[2] “Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up and isn’t down

It isn’t in the nursery

And it isn’t in the town…”

  1. A. Milne, “Halfway Down”

[3] Liz and Matt Boulton, “Transfiguration: SALT’s Commentary for Epiphany Week 6,” SALT 6 February 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/2/6/transfiguration-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-6.

[4] “For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133).

[5] 4 Epiphany (1-28-18) B

[6] Liz and Matt Boulton, “Transfiguration: SALT’s Commentary for Epiphany Week 6,” SALT 6 February 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/2/6/transfiguration-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-6.

[7] Eliade most often wrote about hierophanies (a theophany is one kind of hierophany). Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (NY: Harcourt, 1957).

[8] Philip Glass, Words Without Music: A Memoir (NY: Norton, 2015) 251, 228, 244.

[9] “Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man. / Things are so beautiful, your love will follow you eyes; / Things are the God, you will love God and not in vain, / For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length / You will look back along the stars’ rays and see that even / The poor doll humanity has its place under heaven…” Robinson Jeffers, “Sign-Post,” The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001) 504.

[10] Eknath Easwaran, Timeless Wisdom: Passages for Meditation from the World’s Saints and Sages (Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press) 145.

Sunday, February 4
Connections We Cannot Make
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“The Lord… heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars and calls them all by name…” (Psalm 147).

 

I love my friend David like a brother. I remember driving with him once. He told me that in the last five years something had happened to his faith. He said, “Malcolm, I’m not sure I believe it anymore.” “What don’t you believe?” I asked. “Any of it,” he replied, “heaven, a god who made the world and sees what we do and cares about us. I’m not sure that the world has any meaning at all. If there was a god, why is there so much suffering?”

In our Old Testament reading a Shunammite woman has such absolute faith in God that when her only child dies she tells no one, not even the boy’s father. She believes with such conviction that God will restore her son. And God does. My friend David asks, what happens when the child does not come back to life?

I will always associate this biblical story with a moment when I really felt the presence of God and it scared me. It happened during a bible study with my friend Sheila. As we read this story of the Shunammite woman I was trembling. I remembered visiting her forty-year-old daughter in the hospital less than four years earlier. Like the Shunammite woman Sheila had also trusted God and asked for help.

But Karen, her daughter the one she loved more than life itself, never recovered. As we read the Bible there was a heavy silence in the room and we wondered what Sheila would say. For me Sheila is a kind of saint. Through terrible years she continued to bring so much love into her church. So why do David and Sheila draw such different conclusions about God and tragedy? In this year of truth what is the truth about suffering?

They both have very different pictures of Christianity. My friend David requires Christianity to offer a reason for why everything happens. He talks as if its primary purpose is to defend God’s actions. For him suffering is evidence that God simply does not exist. Perhaps David imagines God moving us around like a cosmic chess player. Maybe he imagines God’s act of creation as one of choosing from an infinite number of possible worlds, one without mosquitoes, another without cancer, or one without Twitter.

David sees suffering and pleasure in an absolute sense as if it were possible simply to measure the amount of each, put them on the scale and see which was greater. In his eyes suffering outweighs the good. Because of this he cannot accept God.

One primary difference between David and Sheila is that David is seeking the truth alone (on the basis of what he hears about God outside the church). Sheila on the other hand is part of a community of people who are sharing their experiences, loving God and trying to heal the world.

The god who controls everything like a cosmic puppeteer is the god of some ancient Greek philosophers. It is emphatically not the God of the Bible. From the very beginning, Christians have regarded death not as necessary for a greater good but as God’s enemy. In the book of John Jesus says about his crucifixion, “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:31-2).

Suffering, evil and pain are not the work of God although at times they open us to see God’s grace. The Bible inspires us to heal suffering whether we encounter it in poverty, loneliness, racism, psychological illness, violence or even in arguments that our life has no meaning. The story of Jesus is about how God desires to heal us so badly that he will suffer terrible pain and betrayal in order to have a relationship with us.

Human beings are tormented not just by what we have loved and lost, or by the pain that we have suffered or witnessed. Our imagination causes us pain. We are troubled by what was and by what never came to be. The stories we tell about suffering magnify or heal it.

The real issue is the pain that we are responsible for both in ourselves and in others. The real question is do we contribute to the world’s joy. On this earth we do not experience suffering or joy in absolute quantities. Our actions and our consciousness magnify them.

When my son Micah was one year old, I took him to an exhibit of photographs by Edward Weston (1886-1958). Weston lived in Carmel during the first half of the twentieth century. At the time we lived in Boston and it was a miserable winter day with gray skies and freezing rain falling onto dirty snow. The trees had no leaves. There was nothing green outside at all.

As he slept in the stroller I wandered through the exhibit. There were so many beautiful pictures of California. At first I felt a little homesick. Weston had photographs from Monterrey of pines, cypress bark, rocks and beautifully shaped sand dunes. But he also had more surprising pictures: close ups of the twisting skin of peppers that looked sensual like a human body. He showed the geometrical perfection of an artichoke that had been cut in half.

The strangest images of all were pictures of a toilet. He made it look breathtakingly beautiful. When we left the exhibit the world had been transformed. That whole afternoon I could look at the most ordinary things and see tremendous beauty. Our life can be like this. It can open up to deeper levels when we pay attention.[1]

In today’s reading the apostle Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” I used to think that this meant that Paul was a fake, that he pretended to be something that he wasn’t. But since then I have come to see this in an entirely different way.

For Paul, those who do not believe in Christ see differences between people as irreconcilable. They regard the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, black people and white people, skaters and jocks, parents and teenagers, as if these differences are the most important thing about us. I think that what Paul means is that in Christ we do not have to be cut off from each other, we do not have to continue to harm or be harmed by each other. God invites us into a new kind of life that will give us power over suffering. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury says, “God is in the connections that we cannot make.”[2]

Christian de Cherge (1937-1996) was a Trappist monk in Algeria who dedicated his whole life to building bridges between Christians and Muslims. In 1993 when Islamic radicals grew in power he and his fellow monks had the chance to flee the country. Instead they chose to risk their lives so that they could continue their work. Three years later de Cherge was beheaded by militants.

He left behind a letter to his family in which he expressed his fears that his death would be used to condemn the people of Islam whom he loved. In it he writes, “Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic… But such people should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able – if God pleases – to see the children of Islam as He sees them illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences. I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs [also] to God who wanted it for joy against… all odds… And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves if it pleases God, our common Father…”[3]

The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich argued that sin is not a particular immoral act like killing or stealing. Instead sin affects all of us all the time as the state of disconnection which he calls estrangement. We are cut off from the God who we were created to intimately know. We feel isolated from each other.

Perhaps the most important thing that Tillich ever wrote was a short sermon called “You are Accepted.” His point was that, in the words of the Bible, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 8:39). We cannot earn God’s love by being good or by believing in him. God loves us no matter what we have done and no matter who we are. After Tillich’s death his family found a copy of this sermon in his desk in which he had written a dedication, “to ME.”[4]

In conclusion, many of us at times feel tempted to believe more in a god of power than our God of love. But whether it is through a photographer of toilets or a friend’s difficult question God shows us many ways to bring more beauty and love into the world. Jesus, the crucified and the Holy One of God, with his children Christian de Cherge and Paul Tillich struggle together against suffering and death. The God of infinite connection is with us and invites us to share in joy.

I asked my friend Sheila if I could talk about her story. This woman who lost her daughter said, “above all tell them that God loves them and that this love can lift them up even in the darkest moments of their lives.”

Let us pray: O most holy God you bring us into connection with yourself and each other. We pray that your care will always be felt by those who know you and those who do not yet see you. We ask this in the name of your son who died so that we can love. Amen.

[1] In our lives we can choose to see beauty and bring love into the world or we can deny them. We can take the suffering that we feel and make other people suffer too. So why do we fail to see the truth? Why do we experience and cause suffering? Why does God often seem so distant from us?

The world surfing champion Kelly Slater was on his way to the contest that could give him his next championship. As the plane taxied down the runway he kept sending text messages on his cell phone. The passenger next to him told him that it would interfere with the plane’s electronic systems. Slater felt tempted to in his words “be a punk” and swear at the man, but he didn’t. Instead he turned his phone off and they had a long conversation together. Afterwards, Slater realized that this change in attitude was a turning point for him and even contributed to his victory. Loving better helped him become a better surfer.

[2] Cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004) 39.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Anne Foerst, God in the Machine: What Robots Teach Us about Humanity and God (NY: Dutton, 2004) 178.

Sunday, January 28
The Man in the Cage
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation” (Ps. 111).

  1. Imagine a hammock slung between coconut palms, the sound of waves lapping up against a rock pool, the smell of tropical flowers in the air and the islands of Lanai and Moloka’i floating above perfectly blue waters in the near distance. This was our daily life on Maui during summers when our children were little. After surfing all morning we would eat a picnic lunch, paint with watercolors and then sit on a big blanket to play the ukulele and sing.

You would recognize some of the songs like “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Freebird.” But many of them were what the recording industry calls “Hawaiian Contemporary,” a genre that you’d find mostly unfamiliar. One song was called Margarita. I’ll sing the first two lines to give you a sense for it. “On a hilltop in Tahiti as I gaze across the bay / At the island of Moorea in the sunshine of the day.”

Last week at a USF basketball game my wife called me over to introduce me to a shy and modest plumber she had just met. His name was Justin Fawsitt. As we talked we realized that Justin wrote “Margarita.” In 1981 he was living in Tahiti playing music at a bar when Skippy and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole heard him and asked him to teach them the song. The version they sang on the radio became popular among Hawaiians.

What made this moment so powerful was the transformation you could see in Justin. His timidness fell away and he just shined. His sense of humor came out like the sun on a cloudy day. This happened because someone recognized who he really was. Someone saw below the surface.

Being recognized can save our life. Let me remind you that we are on a journey together. Each week in Epiphany something new becomes revealed to us about Jesus and about God. This week we see the first moment of Jesus’ public ministry. We witness his tremendous power to recognize and heal the people around him.

  1. Each author of the Gospels evokes a different sensibility. Often Mark’s world seems full of darkness, looming threats and danger. For him, life is riddled with demons who warp creation and constantly threaten to overcome all goodness. Mark regards human beings as porous creatures, like sponges open to spiritual influences, with low resistance to infections by dark forces.[1]

We can imagine being recognized in an uncanny, sinister or unsettling way also. Last week at ACT we saw the Harold Pinter play The Birthday Party which someone described as a ”comedy of menace.” Stan, a boarder at a seaside B&B, frightens his landlady by suggesting that men might come and take her away in a wheelbarrow. That night two gangster-like figures arrive and keep insinuating that they know him. Everything in the play conspires to produce a vague sense of danger, a fear that makes freedom impossible.

This sense of a looming threat hangs over Jesus as he enters the synagogue and impresses the people with the exousia of his teaching. That word used twice by the admiring crowds means power or authority. It bears a family resemblance to ousia which is the word at the heart of the Nicene Creed and means being or substance. Sometimes you will see “ho on” written on icons. It means the being, the one who is. For me it is another way of saying that Jesus is the source of our existence.

Unlike the scribes Jesus speaks with authority. A man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth… I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk. 1). Jesus heals him. The crowds again admire his exousia. Word about him spreads.

The structure Mark uses to tell this story is called a chiasmus (after the Greek letter chi for “X”). [2] The first verse and the last are paired and discuss geographical details. The second verse and the second to last one match in describing the astonishment people feel about Jesus’ power, etc. If you do not notice this at first it might seem as if Mark unnecessarily repeats himself.

Mark uses the structure for an important reason. It focuses our attention on the two central verses describing the encounter between the man with the unclean spirit and Jesus. First the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus, and then in an even deeper passage the reader sees through Jesus that the man is more than just the spirit that convulses him.

The Greek text literally says that the man is “in” an unclean spirit, almost the way that a person might be inside a cage. In some ways the person and the spirit are identical. When the spirit speaks it seems to speak through his mouth. But in other ways they are different. The unclean spirit seems to be able to see things that the man alone cannot.[3]

There are two ways to misunderstand the man’s situation. If we regard the man as simply another person, as wholly different from the unclean spirit, we minimize the “tragedy of his life.” We would fail to see all the ways that this spirit has damaged his consciousness, “his body, his relationships,” and every potential he had to experience joy or love. Even though that suffering may have felt excruciating, it has become part of that man’s history and identity.

On the other hand if we see the spirit and the man as simply one thing, as we most often do, we lose his humanity. We begin to regard him as just another object. Jesus had the power to see both the man and the spirit. Jesus has the power to bring about his healing and ours.

  1. In the twentieth century we exist in a ubiquitous cloud therapeutic jargon, as if everything can be reduced to a kind of psychological illness with a cure. We talk about processing things, being paranoid and getting closure. I don’t know if you noticed but not one dies anymore. They just pass away. When we don’t like the president we look for a psychiatrist who will tell us he is crazy.

The language of demon possession may sound strange to us at first. But it is a way of honestly talking about the universal experience of not having total control over our thoughts and compulsions. It is a way to speak vividly about the cunning of racism, hatred, anger, envy, sexism, lust and the fear of what seems foreign to us. We encounter these forces not just on the outside. An inner voice speaks this way too. This is also another way of talking about our addictions.[4]

Johann Hari wrote about this in an article called “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered (and It Is Not What You Think).”[5] Hari points out that there are two prevailing metaphors when it comes to addiction. On the one hand conservatives use the language of individual ethics. They blame addicts for their hedonism and for partying too much. This has led to a War on Drugs that sought to simply eradicate the chemicals that alter our consciousness in this way. It brought mass incarceration on the social level and “interventions” on the personal level which threaten to cut off support for addicts who refuse to change.

Liberals use the metaphors of addiction as a kind of disease as if our brains had been “chemically hijacked.” Hari points out that one problem with this is that not all people respond the same way to chemicals or other stimulus like gambling. Hari claims that a large number of soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin and that ninety-five percent simply stopped using when they returned home. When people leave the hospital most are able to stop using the painkillers they depended on before.

At the heart of Hari’s claims are two studies on rats. In the first scientists put a rat in a cage with a choice of water or water with cocaine or heroin. Ninety percent of the rats keep coming back to the water with drugs until it kills them. Later a psychology professor named Bruce Alexander tried a different experiment. Instead of leaving a rat alone in a cage he built Rat Park. It had toys and tunnels to explore and plenty of other rats. In this environment he gave them the choice between the two kinds of water.

What Alexander found was that the rats with good lives “didn’t like the drugged water.” They consumed less than a quarter of the drugs that the isolated rats used. Furthermore none of them died. In other words the rats who were alone became heavy users and the rats in the happier environment did not.

Hari concludes that we cannot talk about addiction without looking at that person’s cage, that is at her overall social condition. Perhaps he is wrong or the experiments were not properly conducted. Still it is powerful to realize that major and minor addictions may not be merely about individual morality or brain chemistry.

We are social animals. We depend on each other so profoundly that experts now recommend not only a healthy diet and exercise but that we systematically pay attention to our social needs. Between 20 and 43 percent of all American adults over the age of 60 report “frequent or intense loneliness.” Recognizing the severity of the problem and its affect on health, the United Kingdom just announced the creation of a Minister for Loneliness.[6] In our daily life we can do something about this. Before you even leave this building you could form a new connection.

Let’s face it going to church is inconvenient. We could all be out getting exercise, volunteering for a noble cause or at home reading the Sunday paper. We could be at the beach but we come here in part because we realize something about the human condition – that we are made for connection with each other and with God.

What is your cage? What demons are you wrestling with as menacing messages of hate swirl around you? This morning on our journey through Epiphany Jesus welcomes us with our unclean spirits into this temple. He sees that we are more than our compulsions. He has power and authority over all that threatens us. Jesus invites us into the healing mystery of God’s love. Being recognized can save our life.

[1] Matt Boulton, “With Authority: Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany 4,” SALT 23 January 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-epiphany-week-4

[2] Mark 1 Chiasmus:

21 ¶ They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,

24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

[3] This idea and the words in quotes come from D. Mark Davis, “Separating a Man from His Cage,” Left Behind and Loving It, 21 January 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com

[4] Matt Boulton, “With Authority: Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany 4,” SALT 23 January 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-epiphany-week-4

[5] Davis linked to this article in Left Behind: Johann Hari, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered (and It Is Not What You Think)” Huffington Post Politics, 20 January 2015 (Updated 18 April 2017). https://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html

[6] Ashley Fetters, “What Loneliness Does to the Human Body,” The Cut, 22 January 2018. https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/the-health-effects-of-loneliness.html

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