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Sunday, November 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, November 16
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, November 12
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, November 5
We are all God’s children now
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Beloved, we are God’s children now.

 

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate all God’s beloved children. We celebrate the saints you see in the stained glass windows – our family picture album of the great and glorious and frankly somewhat weird characters who are heroes of our faith. This year we remember those we see in the other family album of the AIDS quilts – mainly young men, mainly gay, who allowed us to share in their hard journey of suffering, allowed us to embrace them as brothers and sisters. And every year we give thanks for all the unsung saints of our own lives who have brought God’s love a little closer to us.

For this isn’t primarily a day for the Shakespeares and Einsteins or even the Kardashians of the kingdom of God. It’s a day for the everyday Janes and Joes whose names are not remembered by the church but who are equally precious in the sight of God. This is not a day when we celebrate the shining accomplishments of the few but the blessed loveliness of the many.

Beloved, we are God’s children now.

Let me tell you of one of my own saints, my oldest brother – Geoffrey. His life was desperately short – he was just three years old when he died from the multiple disabilities that had been with him since birth. I was only born a few weeks before Geoffrey died so I never got to know him. But I lived in the gift of his legacy. In one way Geoffrey could not be said to have achieved anything in his short life – he was never even able to walk or speak or feed himself. But in another way he achieved so much. His birth began my mum and dad’s journey as parents, while his total dependence gave them and his other carers an opportunity to offer unconditional love. He opened the hearts of those around him by his need and vulnerability and so made the world a more loving, God-filled place.

There is no life which is too restricted, too little, to be a beacon of God’s love. To be a saint in someone’s life. This is one of the ways that our faith is so stunningly counter-cultural. We don’t place premium value on doing and accomplishment, we place it on being and on loving. These 13 young lives who are being welcomed into the cathedral family today are all equally beloved by God. They will continue to be equally beloved and equally valued whatever they achieve or fail to achieve in their lives. There is no competition here – no way to gain more of God’s love or to lose even a drop of it – we are God’s beloved children now.

And this takes us some of the way but not quite all the way into the story of All Saints Day. For it’s impossible to think about All Saints without thinking about death as well as life. All these people remembered around us in the windows and the quilts are dead. They haven’t ‘passed’ – after all no one gets to fail the test of death – they died.  And death is scary, let’s not pretend otherwise. That’s why we all dress up in silly costumes and go out in the dark on hallowe’en – to scare away the monsters and bogeymen that hide in the dark of death. Getting some life-giving sweetness along the way from the candy given by the kindness of strangers.

Death is scary partly because it brings with it the heartbreaking pain of loss for those left behind. And it is also deeply scary because we don’t know what happens to us next. But our readings today give us some hints if we are willing to accept them. There is the reassurance of Revelation’s promise that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Then there is the letter of John admitting we don’t know exactly what we will become, but also saying: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him”. We will be like Christ, like God. We will be like our heavenly parent.

We – us everyday and extraordinary Janes and Joes – will be like the one who loves all of us intimately, individually and equally. We will be like the one who defeated death. We will be like the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and who longs for all her children to be peacemakers. We will be part of a whole ginormous shining crowd of people who are like God. Part of the crowd with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Francis, with Gary and Andrew named on the quilts, with my brother Geoffrey, with your own beloved dead.

Beloved we are God’s children now. This is the identity we celebrate and claim for our own in baptism. This is the identity we live into together as a community of faith, a family of spiritual seekers. This is the identity we share with the whole communion of saints, living and dead. And this is the identity that awaits us all on the far side of death as we are transformed to an even closer resemblance to our heavenly mother.

Beloved we are God’s children now. How will you live into that identity? What legacy will your life leave for God’s children who are being baptized today and those yet unborn?  How will you have touched the world with God’s gentleness? Where will you have sown seeds that bear fruit in the future? What will you have given time, talents and treasure to in order to build a hope-filled world?

 

My closing prayer is very short and comes through words by Michael Leunig:

“Let us live in such a way

That when we die

Our love will survive

And continue to grow. Amen.”

 

 

Listen to Past Sermons

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

Sunday, August 13
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Sunday, August 6
Last Message for My Son
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Last Message for My Son

You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter).

 

On September 9, 2001 full of hope I stood in the pulpit for my first sermon at our new church. I was about to preach about falling in love. But in the silence after the prayer, and before I could say a word, our then two year old son sitting in the back pew called out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Daddy!” In that unscripted moment I said back, “I love you too Micah.”

Since then I have been blessed to speak about Jesus to our children in sermons almost every Sunday of their lives. Over these years I have always remained grateful for this amazing gift. In a world where God is such a problem for so many people I get to speak about what I love most. This happens in a setting that is unhindered and undeterred by the norms or discomfort of secular society.

During that time I have preached some terrible sermons (I don’t know why but some of my worst have been about films). I have preached many not-yet-finished sermons that I didn’t really understand until a few days later. But there have also been those magical moments with gracious people sitting in the congregation like you are today. They looked interested and encouraged something to come out of me that can only be described as a gift from somewhere else.

So many times God has been with us in the sense of Ellen’s preaching prayer when she says, “Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard may the God’s spirit be present.”

Today is my last chance, my last sermon with him as a child under our roof. In a week he turns eighteen and leaves for college. I have to let him go into the company of other preachers, to learn from other teachers.

It is so hard to know what to say. How do you prepare someone for the ugliness and cruelty of the world? How do you alert your child to the extraordinary holiness that also arises out of our daily experience? What is the wisdom that he will need in the future?

I suppose that it begins with a picture of what it means to be human. Ray Hart wrote a book called Unfinished Man and the Imagination.[1] The implication of the title is that through the power of imagination we are constantly being finished by our connections with each other and God.

We are creatures primarily directed by our unconscious life, by the mysterious strivings, longings and fears that we rarely can even name. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that we are ninety percent chimp. By this he means that we are extraordinarily selfish primates, looking out for ourselves first but immersed in “relentless competition of groups with other groups.” Haidt says that we are also ten percent honeybee. In the sense that we, “long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.”[2] I believe that there is more than this however.

This Thursday in the Cathedral lunchroom Mark Stanger talked about two competing Christian views of our situation. On the one hand there is the idea that the world is a minefield of evil, full of dangers. We have to avoid being trapped and damaged, ruined so badly that we loose ourselves. This picture focuses on the cruelty of the world and the unkindness that we recognize in our own hearts.

In a way we are in the impossible situation of being frenemies with God (that is, friend – enemies like Aaron Burr). Karl Barth (1886-1968) argues that creation does not come first as if it were separate from redemption. Our alienation from God is no further away from us than our creation. In every moment we depend for our existence on the same God that we reject through our thoughts and actions.

Barth writes, “To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness….”[3] Another way to express this would be to say that sin cuts off the branch that we are sitting on.

For many years I have been working on a chapter in a book called The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought. It finally arrived in the mail last week. I wrote about changing views of nature. My story begins with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his later philosophy Kant explored the idea that we do not experience the world as it actually is (the noumena) but only as our senses and brain reconstruct it (the phenomena).[4]

Kant also cared deeply about the freedom of human actions. For him what we know about God is ultimately based on morality, on our experience of the social world.[5] By the end of the nineteenth century most Christians in most places concerned themselves almost entirely with the social world. I feel this especially when other kinds of Christians talk about what they believe. This picture of faith as relief from sin has an enormous power.

But as Mark Stanger says our tradition also offers another view of the human condition. In his words this picture of the world is “miraculous.” With a mysterious smile he quoted the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out like shook foil… For all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”[6]

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast dedicated to this second kind of faith. In my experience Anglicans care about sin and redemption but our hymns, art, culture, history and the spirit that animates us keep us from thinking that this is the only thing.

On Thursday night at evensong we sang Hymn 46. It conveys this sensibility. The second verse goes like this, “Now all the heavenly splendor breaks forth in starlight tender from myriad worlds unknown; and we, this marvel seeing, forget our selfish being for joy of beauty not our own.”[7] You might have known this, “joy of beauty not our own.”

I imagine the disciples did long after his death in recalling the joy of being with Jesus. Jesus goes to a mountaintop to pray with his friends Peter, James and John. As he prays his image (eidos) changes and his clothes flash with the whiteness of lightning. Then the great prophets Moses and Elijah speak to him. Strangely Jesus’ friends feel weighed down by sleep but manage to stay awake. When Jesus, Moses and Elijah are done talking Peter says that he wants to build dwellings for them. Suddenly clouds cover them, the disciples are terrified and a voice declares Jesus to be God’s son (Lk. 9).

I want to point out one striking thing about the story. Although this may have been one of the most important moments of their lives, the disciples almost missed it by being asleep.

This week after yoga Sadvi Bhagawati Saraswati and I were on a panel together being interviewed.[8] The first question was for her and it went like this. “Why are you a spiritual leader in India when it would have been so much easier for you to stay here and be an Episcopalian minister?”

Sadvi told the  story of how she woke up. She grew up in the U.S. attended Stanford as an undergraduate and was a twenty-five year old psychology doctoral student when on a lark she decided to go to India. There she had an experience of God that changed her life. She did not choose this. She felt compelled. She said it was as if she had been walking along a beach picking up seashells when all of a sudden she came upon someone offering her diamonds instead. It was obvious to her that she should throw away all the seashells so that she could carry the jewels.

Every day you too are being offered diamonds. But too often we just sleep through it. Instead of waking up to transfiguration we are obsessed with how our bodies look, our accomplishments, how others perceive us. We are haunted by regrets about the past. We refuse to live in the present because of our dreams of the future.

This week I listened to a Dear Sugars Podcast about the struggles of teenagers. One twenty-year-old girl had been captain of her high school cross-country team, valedictorian, totally in control of her grades and weight. Everyone always commented about how beautiful she was. By the time she reached college she realized that she had an eating disorder. What struck me most about the broadcast was how much she and the hosts, and all of us, care so much about what people thought of us in high school.

What will it take for us to wake up out of this dreamlike existence, for us to stop trying to always win other people’s approval through our accomplishments and our appearance (from trying to win over even God)? How can we wake up to see the moments of transfiguration happening all around us?[9] The Apostle Paul writes to his friends, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you” (Eph. 5).

Something like this happened to me this weekend. My son and I went surfing at Bolinas for one last time before he leaves for college. On a perfectly still, impossibly temperate summer day we passed along the edge of the mirror-like lagoon and I felt an intense surge of emotion. Later we traded perfect glassy waves, just the two of us, resting only to watch the pelicans glide past. Above the rim of hills the sky, with distant high clouds and closer mists, seemed infinitely beautiful and mysterious.

In that moment it seemed like God said, “as far as you can see from Pedro Point in San Mateo County to Duxbury Reef, this is the world given for you.”

The last sermon is done and I can hardly believe that this season of our life is over. What I want for my son is the same thing I want for all of us. In terms of the first picture of faith, I pray that we are forces of compassion, justice and goodness, that through kindness our lives will build God’s kingdom. But I also pray for the second religious vision. I pray that we will recognize that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I pray we will seek and discover “the joy of beauty not our own.

[1] Ray L. Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination (NY: Herder & Herder, 1968).

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon, 2012) 220.

[3] “To be sinners, as we are shown to be in the revelation of Jesus Christ, means that we have separated ourselves from the One without whom we would not be even in this separation and yet, separated from whom, we cannot be in any true or proper sense. To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness, or it cannot be understood at all.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 444.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993).

[6] Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1948) 70.

[7] Hymn 46 from The 1980 Hymnal. Words Paul Gerhard, translated by Robert Seymour Bridges and others, Music, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, melody attributed to Heinrich Isaac (1450?-1517); harmony Johann Sebastian Bach.

[8] Tuesday 1 August 2017.

[9] The second element in the story that seems odd to me is Peter’s offer to make three dwellings (called skēnas in Greek). This is the same word that John uses in his prologue when he talks about the Word dwelling among us. Matthew writes that Peter did not know what he was saying. And yet I have a sense for why he did. I think that this refers to our longing to hold on to these moments of transfiguration. We want to stay on the mountain, to remain in that moment of unity with God forever. We can be so overcome by the beauty of holiness that we do not trust that God will give us this experience again.

Sunday, July 30
A Hidden Gift
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Mt. 13).

 

The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that one of the most difficult parts of believing in God is trying to talk about God.[1] When someone asks you why you believe, or how your faith makes a practical difference in your life, it is hard to provide an answer. When we finally do say something the words seem so inadequate to our experience. Something is inevitably lost.

On the evening of May 24, 1738 after a period of despair, John Wesley “very unwillingly” went to church. He listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to Romans. And in his Journal he writes about what happened next. “[W]hile [the reader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins…”[2]

That’s it. It may not sound like much but this experience of a strangely warmed heart changed Wesley’s whole life. He went on to preach an average of two sermons a day. In 52 years he traveled 250,000 miles on horseback.[3] Although he lived and died as an Anglican priest, the Methodist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God denominations, most of the fastest growing churches around the world today, were inspired by his teaching.

When the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) died they found sewn into his clothing a written account of the most powerful experience he had had in his life. It read, “FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace. The world forgotten, and everything except God. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy… Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ. Total submission to Jesus Christ…”[4] Hearing what Pascal wrote, we know something extraordinary happened to him, but we cannot at all grasp it. It belongs to him and God alone.

We cannot easily find the words which can communicate our own experiences of the holy. But that is not our only problem. We have difficulty even understanding what counts as a religious experience.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes, “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity. When God speaks to [human beings], this event never demarcates itself from other events in such a way that it might not be interpreted… as part of these other events.”[5] In other words we never know for sure when or how God is addressing us. I believe that God speaks to us even through our unconscious thoughts. This might be as simple as a sense of gratitude at seeing the morning light through the fog at dawn on a summer day.[6]

We require ordinary things to talk about the holy. And so we do our best to describe God. Meeting God is like falling in love, like erasing all the pain we have ever known, or totally forgetting your self. It is like being present at the creation of the whole world, or becoming really free for the first time, or feeling like you will never die. As a surfer God breaking through to us feels like that moment as you tuck in the tube behind a curtain of translucent water and time just seems to stop.

We can’t get it exactly right but we can give a sense for what we mean. Jesus understands how we need ordinary words to interrupt our habitual ways of experiencing the world. The right image can provoke a change of heart that might just save our life. And so Jesus persists with comparisons that perplex, stretch and delight us.

This morning he repeats a simple phrase over and over. “ÔOmoi÷a e˙sti«n hJ basilei÷a tw◊n oujranw◊n), “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (Mt. 13). Before we go too much further I want to tell you one thing about this gospel. When you compare Matthew to the other gospel writers he stands out as being more intensely interested in the final judgment. He is the one who writes the most about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[7] He’s the only one who tells parables about separating the sheep from the goats, or the wise and foolish virgins (Mt. 25).

We all have a different tolerance for ambiguity and in comparison to others I think our brother Matthew may want everything to be clearer, more a matter of black and white, good and evil. Although I am more likely to see both good and bad in every person I appreciate that Matthew warns us that a lot is at stake.

My point is that these parables about the kingdom of heaven do not primarily seem to be about judgment. In one a tiny seed (o§ mikro/teron) grows into such a great tree that the birds of heaven nest in its branches. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is also like the small amount of yeast that a woman hides in the midst of grain which causes it to become bread.

Before we can catch our breath or wonder what these metaphors have in common Jesus throws some other ones at us. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds treasure in a field, reburies it and then “in his joy” sells all he has so that he can buy the field.

One of my favorite images in the Bible, for very personal reasons, comes next. The kingdom is like an emporo, related to our word, emporium, that is a merchant searching for fine pearls. Finding the pearl of great value, he sells everything in order to buy it. It feels like Jesus addresses me personally here. My wife’s Hawaiian name means pearl and I would give up everything I own for her.

But Jesus does not stop. The kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea. What I love about this one is that Jesus does not use the Greek word for fish. The net catches simply “out of every kind” (e˙k panto\ß ge÷nouß sunagagou/shØ) without exactly specifying what. After all these images of finding things this refers to the experience of being found. Each of us is unique. We have such different stories, yet together we celebrate being found by God in this net of love.

For me what unifies all these pictures of the kingdom of heaven is the theme of hiddenness. The key word for what the woman does with her yeast is enkrupto. It is related to word encrypt (e˙ne÷kruyen). She hides the yeast in the grain. In these stories what is hidden and small becomes big and life sustaining. What is hidden and unrecognized turns out to be worth all that we have.

The theologian Karl Barth writes that our inability to constantly experience God arises out of the limits of our existence and perception. We are human and God is God. We cannot even think God. But God overcomes this distance. He writes, “God’s word has for our sakes stepped forth out of its self-contained existence into the circle of things which we can know.” He describes faith not as believing but as a gift to us that must be “seized again and again.” This gift is the recognition that our whole life is lived in God.[8]

Great musicians, artists and writers refer to this hidden experience of God in different ways. Composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) writes simply, “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.” The twentieth century organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) says, “Certain people are annoyed that I believe in God. But I want people to know that God is present in everything, in the concert hall, in the ocean, on a mountain, even on the underground.”[9]

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) describes himself as a watchman whose, “profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”[10] The novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) writes, “The unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth.”[11]

In a letter to his sister Alice the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) writes that, “the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude, in which when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘this is the real me.’”[12]

This week Ellen Clark-King talked to me about spiritual practices inspired by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). She suggested that for one week each of us could adopt the following practice for seeking out God. At the end of each day could we ask ourselves two questions. The first is, “when were you most alive?” And the second is, “when were you most detached?” In these questions and their answers we will listen to the Holy.

Where do we find God and the words to share our discoveries? Jesus teaches that these come to us in the most ordinary experiences, in the most common words we know. On the one hand you may vividly recall a moment when you felt your heart “strangely warmed,” or even worried that you might be extinguished by the FIRE, the certainty, the heartfelt joy and peace of the God of Abraham. Or you may wonder if “the unapproachable mystery” of God has ever even talked to you at all in the quietness of your unconscious.

I pray that Jesus, with his comparisons that perplex, stretch and delight us, will shelter us under his wing. As we dig for treasure, while the kingdom leavens the bread of our lives, I pray that we recognize the pearl of great value. I pray that we may rejoice in the gift that Jesus offers every day, in the only treasure worth having – the gift of a whole life lived in God. Brothers and sisters, may the net of God’s love draw us ever closer together!

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Seeds of Heaven,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 39.

[2] John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html.

[3] Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 368.

[4] Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 335.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 165.

[6] If this were not enough, the words we use, and even the entire system of meaning that we depend on gets worn out too. Think about that formerly obscure religious word “awesome” and what it meant in 1957 and how it is used today. The same is true of “cool,” “sin,” “reconciliation,“ and today, “sad.” I have in mind here the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and the work of Robert Neville regarding the truth about broken symbols.

[7] Except Lk. 18:38.

[8] “If in this event we link up with the fact that we have perhaps believed before, and if in this event we receive the promise that we will again believe in the future, if there is thus a state of believing which embraces past, present and future, faith itself is not identical with this state of believing. As distinct from it, it is never something which is there already. It is always a gift which has to be seized again and again” (706). “It is not to be denied but rather affirmed that in certain humanly identifiable moments and situations, not simply in recollection or expectation but in the concrete present of faith, we are in fact humbly and thankfully aware in a very special way, not merely of our state of believing, but of our real faith, and therefore of our whole life as a life lived in God, and that in this sense we gladly recall such moments as certainly significant” (708). Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956), 699-708.

[9] Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007) 143, 472.

[10] Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981-) 4:55.

[11] Robert D. Richards, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) 477.

[12] Ibid., 181.

Sunday, July 23
Help in Weakness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Malcolm Clemens Young                                                                           Isaiah 44:6-8

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA X24                                                 Psalm 86:11-17

7a Pentecost (Proper 11A) 8:30, 11:00 a.m. Eucharist                             Romans 8:12-25

Sunday 23 July 2017                                                                                     Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43

 

Help in Weakness

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8).

 

“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”[1] Martin Luther writes this about Jesus. He quotes the last line from The Gospel of Matthew. “And remember, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28). This has become a kind of motto for me. These words make Jesus feel so near. Perhaps this could be true for you too.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) recognizes that philosophies and scientific pictures of the universe are constantly evolving. For this reason, and because what we assume at the beginning in large part determines our conclusions, Barth starts not with a theory of the human condition but with what he calls the Word of God. He begins with the living God of the Bible and the way that the Holy Spirit inspires us as we read it carefully. Barth points out a human tendency that you might recognize. Let me explain with an example.[2]

In 1820 Thomas Jefferson completed a project that he had worked on for decades. He went through the New Testament with a razor, cut out the parts he disagreed with and then pasted together what was leftover, that is, what he actually believed. Not to spoil the surprise, but Jefferson’s book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth took out what he considered to be any reference to miracles and the resurrection.[3]

In many ways we do the same kind of thing. Most people in our society, spend more time sitting in judgment of God than they do in trying to obey God. We are part of this. We almost cannot help ourselves. Barth challenges us to do something different. He writes, “Our supposed listening is in fact a strange mixture of hearing and our own speaking… [typically] it is most likely that our own speaking will be the really decisive event. We have to know the mystery… if we are really to meet it, if we are really to be open and ready, really to give ourselves to it…”[4]

For Barth, “Scripture is always autonomous and independent.”[5] It finds the people intended for it. He writes that the miracle is that, “fallible [people] speak the Word of God in fallible human words” “awakening and strengthening… our faith.”[6] To summarize, although we hear the Bible with our constantly running inner monologue, the miracle is that sometimes God gets through to us. Barth writes, “In Jesus Christ, I am revealed to myself as he who in the totality of his existence is received and accepted by Him.”[7]

I talked to a few of you about today’s reading. We had some hard conversations. Several of you did not like this picture of a final judgment, “the furnace of fire,” “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13).

Crowds have gathered to hear Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven. He describes it as a pearl of great price or a field with treasure in it, as worth trading everything we have in order to possess. It is a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant and dominates the landscape. It is like yeast or a net cast into the sea. It is right before us but hidden, perhaps because we have difficulty listening.

Jesus compares the kingdom to someone who sows good seed in the fields but whose enemy comes in the night and plants what our translation calls weeds. The Greek word is zizania and means darnel (or Eurasian Ryegrass sometimes called “false wheat) a particular kind of plant easily confused for wheat. You might even imagine the very roots of the two grasses interwoven in the soil.

As the first shoots come up the workers ask where the zizania come from and if they should remove pull it out. The householder says an enemy has done this but that uprooting the weeds will unintentionally involve pulling up wheat too. He tells them to wait for the harvest when the reapers will burn the weeds and gather the wheat into the barn.

Jesus offers an explanation in only two of Matthew’s forty parables. This is one of them. Privately he tells his friends that the enemy is the devil, the one who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the reapers are the angels and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen” (Mt. 13)!

Let’s return to Barth’s original challenge. Instead of standing in judgment of Jesus’ words, how do we become obedient to them? We should begin with the question that Jesus’ parable answers. You too might hear this complaint about God more than any other these days. If God is good and powerful why is there so much evil in the world?

The point of the parable is not to scare you into being a better person. The weeds are not trying to become wheat, the wheat cannot become a weed. The fifteenth century theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that we are simply what God made us to be. He thought that if you are concerned about being God’s child that is a pretty good sign that you already are.[8]

The point is that as we survey our lives, we are not even qualified to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. We cannot even recognize the good and evil events or even the people for what and who they are. We have to suspend our judgment and let God be God.

Do any of you remember Eddie Haskell the teenaged character from the television show Leave It to Beaver? He was a terrible and cruel bully to the kids but seemed to have all the adults completely fooled by the polite way he spoke to them. We are all subject to the Eddie Haskell effect.[9] We simply cannot tell who is genuinely close to God, whose heart is full of love.[10] We do not always have to have an opinion about everyone. For homework lets try turning off the judgment switch at least three times this week.

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that this is tremendously difficult for us. He writes that, “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm these initial judgments.” He compares the vast sea of subliminal moral perceptions, urges and desires to a kind of elephant who cannot be controlled by the rider which is our sense of rationality. For him the elephant is in charge of the rider, “reason is the servant of the intuitions.” Our rationality is a kind of fulltime public relations firm” offering, “post hoc explanations for what the elephant has just done.”[11]

I worry a little about this whole conversation on being obedient to scripture and Jesus’ teaching that we should set aside our innate tendency and leave judgment to God. Talking in this way may feel abstract or distant from our lives. I worry even more about what I am about to tell you, that you will think less of me. But we need a reminder of what it really feels like when things go wrong.

This week my son Micah asked, “Dad after the 2008 financial crisis did you lose weight or gain it?” Everyone in our family remembers that winter. It was when our church suffered a colossal failure of communication and trust. On a January day I walked into the office and a colleague told me that angry parishioners were holding a secret meeting, establishing a parallel leadership structure apart from the elected board of the church. They worried about a new school we were starting, the budget, divisions between young and old, but mostly it was about me.[12]

I lost twelve pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t sleep. My eye started twitching. When I went running I would try to visualize setting down a model of the church beside the path and going on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it even for ten minutes. This beautiful community, this gift from God, was shaken by misunderstanding and enmity, by an entirely unnecessary and senseless bitterness.

In the end, there was more than enough forgiveness and reconciliation to go around. But it was very painful before that.

Maybe you have felt helpless or radical self-doubt in a tragedy, as if the enemy was succeeding at turning good people against each other, or bringing out the worst possible events. Perhaps that is how you feel today. At moments like this no one can tell us that this terrible suffering might lead to something really great. Only someone with the power of Jesus can help us to recognize that ultimately we cannot distinguish the wheat from the weeds.

The Apostle Paul writes about a lot of moments like this. He writes from prison, after being betrayed by friends or beaten and humiliated by the authorities. And he points out what I find true in my own life, that God does not abandon us in times like this. He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8).[13]

Karl Barth believes that all of scripture culminates with you, right now as part of the process by which God’s Word unfolds. Your story is how Christ’s story makes contact with the world. Barth writes, “We ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process, not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge…”[14]

And so I now leave us to return to our own inner monologues with the prayer that God’s Word can make it through to us. When you rage against the weeds in your life I pray for the miraculous power to suspend judgment and let God be God. When you feel hurt, when the rash elephant of your instantaneous moral judgments runs wild, I pray that the Spirit will intercede with “sighs too deep for words.”

“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

[1] Martin Luther W.A. 54, 470, 474f cited in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) xi.

[2] In the last few months I have read about 1400 pages of the Karl Barth’s never-completed 9000 page work Church Dogmatics.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. A recent New York Times article on this topic: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/opinion/thomas-jeffersons-bible-teaching.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 470.

[5] Ibid., 583.

[6] “… every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e., the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words – and we therefore resist the sovereignty of grace, in which God Himself became man in Christ, to glorify Himself in his humanity“ (529). We believe that the Bible is the Word of God… Of course, the whole mystery of this statement rests on the fact that faith is not for everybody, and that even if we have it, it is a small and weak and inadequate because not a true faith. Therefore the miracle which has to take place if the Bible is to rise up and speak to us as the Word of God has always to consist in an awakening and strengthening of our faith.” (512), Ibid., 529, 512.

[7] Ibid., 706.

[8] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[9] Sometimes I ask my teenagers about other kids because I know that I only experience young people in the moments when adults are around.

[10] Edward F. Markquart, “Weeds and Wheat,” Series A Sermons, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_weeds_and_wheat.htm

[11] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) 46-7.

[12] There were two secret meetings. They gave a powerpoint presentation to the vestry that fell two days after the funeral for a nineteen year old former youth group member who I loved.

[13] At my funeral one day they will read his final conclusion, that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8).

[14] “… yet we cannot fail to reckon with the fact that it does actually happen that in our humanity we ourselves are now drawn into the process in which the Word of God exercises its freedom and as the word of prophets and apostles takes its course through the world. That we are believers and witnesses will always be a matter of doubt, and humanly speaking even for despair. We have to remember that this is a reality for which we can never do more than give thanks and pray. But we deny this reality, and therefore the whole process of events in which God’s Word comes to man as a human word, and therefore the work of the Son and even God Himself, if we try to escape the fact that we ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge, conscientes

[14]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 701.

Sunday, July 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Mary Carter Greene
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Mary Carter Greene’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

Thursday, July 13
Evensong Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Thursday's Evensong service
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