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The Rev. Yolanda Norton’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
The Truth about God
“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders” (Ps. 29).
What is the truth about God?  Our 2018 Cathedral theme is truth and this seems like a good place to begin. Eleven years ago our family found ourselves behind a square iron fence at a fairground with perhaps a hundred thousand people outside. The electricity generated by all those souls felt tangible. I remember the beautiful young dancers, old men in bright robes carrying holy objects and prayers chanted so loudly over loudspeakers that you could almost think of nothing else.
We were celebrating Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany, in Addis Ababa as the special guests of the Abuna, a kind of pope for forty million Ethiopians. I will never forget the feeling I had when the people threw thousands of plastic bottles over the fence to be filled with blessed holy water.
In Greek, the word epiphany means to shine upon or to reveal. We associate this season with three images. First, it reminds us of the light present from the beginning of our world which is Christ. Second, we remember the magi, the three wise men, visitors to the baby Jesus, who some regard as representatives of, “the exotic, the secular, and the scientific world.” The other guiding story for this time tells about the baptism of Jesus when the heavens were torn apart and God’s spirit came to rest on him.
My old teacher Peter Gomes used to say that Epiphany, “is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.” He told us that what begins as a very private message to Mary and Joseph comes to be shared with, “an ever-expanding audience of witnesses.” He compares it to the ripples formed when you drop a pebble into a smooth pond (until the entire surface is witness to the initial movement of that one stone).
That Ethiopian day in the midst of the largest crowd I had ever seen we lost our five-year-old daughter. So much was happening, I took a photograph, and in a heart stopping instant she was gone. Then we noticed all the television cameras moving to a place where there was a commotion. There was our daughter sitting on the Abuna’s lap as he presided from his throne over the largest religious ritual I will ever see.
My wife picked her up and the two of them were on every television station and the front page of every newspaper. Wherever we went in Ethiopia after that people recognized them and gave them special gifts. This event led to an amazing sense of connection to others.
We long to be known, and during that time we were. It was as if the special admiration that we have for our own children, the way they seem so beautiful to us, was suddenly shared by a whole country of people. For those weeks it felt like all of humanity was our family.
All of us know about the opposite experience too, when instead of a person we become “traffic” to others, that is an inconveniently placed object for them. We also know what it feels like to be isolated and lonely. This week I read an article sent to me by a friend called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
The argument may be familiar to you already. It holds that the smartphones, which didn’t even exist when we went to Ethiopia, have disrupted a whole generation’s experience of childhood. They are guinea pigs measuring the effects of colossal social changes. According to the author today’s young people are far less likely to use drugs and alcohol, to have sex or even to go out with their friends. They spend about the same amount of time doing homework as earlier generations.
The difference is that young people today spend a massive amount of time on smartphones and social media. This leads to loneliness, a feeling of being left out, depression and suicide. The author writes that girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by fifty percent. Three times as many 12 to 14 year old girls kill themselves today than did in 2007. She also writes that those who attend religious services have a much lower risk for depression.
This is a time when we really need God to be revealed to our children, and to us. Yet sometimes it seems as if even devout Christians are strangely uninterested in coming to know God. Many people seem satisfied to say simply that “God is love” without caring much about the details, without learning what the Bible and tradition teaches about God’s nature.
This puzzles me. Imagine if we were having a conversation and I told you that I love my wife. What if you asked where she grew up and I said, “I don’t know.” You might say, “Well what kind of music does she listen to?“ or “what does she look like?” “is she shy or gregarious?” If I told you that I didn’t know, you’d probably think there was something seriously wrong with our relationship. One of the most upsetting realizations we can have about someone we love is that they do not really know us.
Loving someone means trying to learn about that person. We find out about God through prayer and worship, in studying scripture and the tradition, by talking to each other and by trying to follow God’s teaching in how we live (by the way this includes everything from how we drive to how we talk about other people).
In baptism we promise to learn more about God and to help our children to do the same. In baptism we renew a relationship that God first began at creation. In baptism we say, “I belong no longer to myself, to my parents, my work, to the Internet or the world; I belong to God.”
Some of you may know that I am on a quest to understand God through the eyes of the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Last year I read 2,000 pages of Church Dogmatics his 9,000 page systematic theology. He asserts that we can know something about God because God cares enough about us to show himself in the Bible, in preaching and the person of Jesus himself. For Barth, this God of the scriptures is above all the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Epiphany story of Jesus’ baptism shows us each aspect of who God is.
Trinity means that we experience God as three persons who have one being or essence. In an analogous way you might experience me as a husband on a double date, as a parent coaching rugby, or as a priest here at Grace Cathedral. You will see a different aspect of me in each of those settings but the being behind all of those experiences, that is me, is the same.
Barth points out that there is within us a kind of enmity toward God. We are kind of like frenemies (friend-enemies) with God. This isn’t just about us as individuals. We learn how to be with God in large part from our culture, which in Western Europe and North America has begun to bend further away from God.
In a recent article the actor Russell Brand who plays the rock star in the old movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall writes about what he is learning in overcoming his addiction to drugs. In a 12-step program Brand recognized his powerlessness over drugs and turned his life over to God, the only one who could save him. It made him realize that all of us live by an unconscious myth that in his words, “we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals.”
With our lives we may often miss the mark but Jesus shows that we do not have to be lost in our misplaced efforts to find security and love by putting ourselves above others.
Over time this Spirit changes us so that gratitude is no longer just the way we think or even behave. Gratitude becomes our very essence. For Barth, in the end this is all about joy. God’s joy leads to the creation of the world. In this same joy God invites us into the Divine life and through the Spirit gives us the ability to say “yes” to God with our whole being. It was this joy that I sensed on that day as the Ethiopians threw their water bottles over the fence.
Brothers and sisters welcome to the Year of Truth at Grace Cathedral. We all long to know and to be known. Like those exotic, secular and scientific Magi let us follow the star of wisdom and come to know the One we love. In the face of all that threatens this generation let the light of Epiphany, the person of Jesus become ever clearer to us. As the ripples of the waters at Jesus’ baptism reach the shores of our time let us find our own way to say, “I belong to God.” Imagine the truth about God we are about to discover.
 Our Cathedral’s 2018 theme is truth. I hope that we will learn new truth about our own lives, and our relation to others. We will explore the truth in journalism, ethics, politics, the economy, sociology, the natural and biological sciences and technology. This week our federal government opened up the process to begin selling offshore oil drilling leases. In our time we need to especially open our eyes to the truth about nature and our planet. Associated Press, “Alaska May Open Up Again for Oil Leasing, but Risks Linger,” The New York Times, 5 January 2018.
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 31.
 Ibid., 30-6.
 Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017. David Smith sent the article. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/
 “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.” Ibid.
 This reminds me of the sense of misplaced attention in the billboards that say that we spend more time reading billboards than planning for our retirement.
 Ethan Renoe, “The Tragedy of Dumbing Down Christianity,” Relevant, 22 December 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/article/the-tragedy-of-dumbing-down-christianity/
 Paraphrase of Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002) 33.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clarke, 1936), 88-120.
 Ibid., 444ff.
 Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” Relevant, 8 October 2017. https://relevantmagazine.com/feature/the-second-coming-of-russell-brand/
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. G.T. Thomposon, Harold Knight (NY: T&T Clarke, 1956) 371
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 The Doctrine of God tr. Parker, Johnston, Knight, Haire (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 669.
 Ibid., 647.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
“Were not our hearts burning within us…” (Luke 24)
During the Vietnam War my friend’s twenty-year-old cousin Steve took all his money, everything that he had saved on his paper route for eight years, and left the country. He moved to England where he spent the whole sum on a beautiful, varnished-wood, 1920’s-era sailing sloop. He lived a nearly perfect life on that boat with his wife Ruth. For two years they would sail to small ports on the south coast of England while he made a modest living as a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker.
Eventually the two crossed the English Channel on the way to visiting Steve’s sister in Holland. While they were at a harbor in Northern France a storm came up. Because Steve didn’t understand French he missed the radio reports which warned about the severity of the storm. They continued on their way.
Very soon after they left Steve realized that he had made a terrible mistake. Strong winds and huge ocean swells made it impossible to return to the safety of the harbor. It seemed as if they would lose their lives on this boat. Steve even tied Ruth to the mast so that she wouldn’t go overboard.
As the storm drove them toward land, Steve fought to make it out to deep water but was steadily pushed back until the boat was driven onto the beach and they were rescued. People on the shore watched their sloop along with five other boats being pounded into splinters in the heavy surf.
Years later in their house, they had a starkly beautiful picture of the waves breaking over the boat. Steve would say, “I love that photograph. It reminds me of the day we lost everything. That was the most important moment in my life.” He goes on, “It shaped the course of everything that happened later.”
Today we are in the midst of a massive unfolding disaster. 170,000 acres have burned. No fire is more than 5% contained. Lives are being lost, workshops and homes and all they contain destroyed. The skies are choking us with the ashes of our friends’ homes. We are breathing in their family photo albums, packs of burning love letters from last century, wedding dresses, children’s toys and furniture carefully passed down through the generations.
I keep hearing from more friends who have lost everything. People are asking me, “Where is God in all this?” Perhaps questions like this don’t get us anywhere. But maybe we also can’t stop asking them. Strangely enough today I have a kind of provisional answer.
When Heidi and I were young our house burned down too. All these years later and I still miss things that we lost. At the time I didn’t realize it but it was the perfect preparation for serving at St. Clement’s Church Berkeley. One quarter of all the parishioners there had lost their homes in the Oakland Fire.
I learned a few things from these experiences. First, amazingly enough most of those people who lost everything in the fire would tell me. “Those were only things! What really matters is that we’re okay!” Another thing I realized is that being part of a community saves lives. Dozens of people were saved because their neighbors realized something was wrong and went to look for them. We depend on each other. What I remember most about our own fire is the people who took care of us and the love I still feel for them.
This is what I think that Steve meant by saying that losing everything in the shipwreck was the most important moment in his life. Like me he loved Jesus. Part of the reason we do is that there is something invisible to us in our everyday life that can become clear in moments like this.
When the disciples encounter Jesus walking along the road, at first they do not recognize him. But in sharing stories, a meal and ultimately ourselves we begin to see past the surfaces of life to what really matters.
The greatest miracle is the simple gift of our life. Whether we are suffering or rejoicing God is always present. We feel that presence more profoundly when we really begin to see each other. When we look deeply into the humanity that we share. When we offer help. Even when we depend on others.
Tonight we are dedicating our collection to people who are suffering from the fires. I pray that God will help us to see Christ hidden in our own situation. I pray that God will protect us from harm and give us hearts to love each other.
 Donald Schell conversation Wednesday 11 October 2017. Clarification email 12 October 2017.
 “Notes and Resources,” San Francisco Emergency Operations Center Community Branch Call #1, 12 October 2017.
Vengeance and Forgiveness
“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on” (Phil 3).
Imagine it is July 1, 1751. You live in the farmlands below the Holyoke Mountain Range, near the great Connecticut River in Northampton. Eventually this will be called Western Massachusetts, but now it is not far from the frontier of European settlement. On this warm Sabbath day you sit on wooden pews in a Puritan church. The pastor, in his late forties, has served here for twenty-four years.
As a young man, he led this church when it became the birthplace of the Great Awakening. The books and pamphlets he wrote about this extraordinary revival of spirituality became international bestsellers and put this remote town on the map. You do not realize it but the Reverend Mister Jonathan Edwards will have the reputation as the New World’s greatest theologian for the next three hundred years.
This fact would probably astonish you since your church has voted to fire him and this is his last sermon as your pastor. Northampton has been growing. Escalating land values and trade have led to greater inequalities than the town has yet faced. Edwards angered powerful people in this community because of his uncompromising opposition to the pressures of materialism. Furthermore, some young men in the town have found an anatomy book and are using it to taunt women about their private parts. Edwards has been outspoken in demanding discipline even for these children of prominent citizens.
His grandfather was the pastor before him and Edwards has reversed one of his most distinctive policies. Edwards now demands a testimony of faith before anyone can become a member of the church. This theological conviction is the stated reason for his removal.
Edwards has baptized their children, married them, buried their loved ones, and counseled them when there seemed like no hope. He now stands to say farewell. He says, “we live in a world of change, where nothing is certain or stable… a little time, a few revolutions of the sun, brings to pass… surprising alterations, in… persons, in families, in towns and in churches, in countries and in nations.” He points out that despite all the
change we see in this world, God will bring together pastors and their congregations on the Day of Judgment. Then, “every error and false opinion shall be detected; all deceit and delusion shall vanish away before the light of that day.” Then “all shall know the truth with the greatest certainty, and there shall be no mistakes to rectify.”1
I think in almost all of us (even preachers of predestination) there is a longing for this kind of Judgment Day. That is when our divorced spouse finally gets what he deserves, when a parent has to face what she has done, when the boss who fired us or the friend who betrayed us receives the full force of God’s justice. “Then they’ll know how I feel,” we think to ourselves. This is the fantasy of being justified by someone who really understands. It is one of the most appealing aspects of believing in God’s omniscience.
Jesus tells the story of an investor, a landlord who builds a vineyard with a fence, winepress and watchtower. He plants vines but during the five years that it takes for them to begin producing wine, the tenants there begin to think they own this place. At harvest time, the owner sends his representatives. The tenants beat one, killed another and stoned another. They do this again. The owner then makes the fatal mistake of sending his own son as his legal representative. They kill him. Jesus asks the religious leaders who are persecuting him, “what will the owner do to those tenants?”
At first the point seems obvious. The Pharisees condemn themselves when they say that the owner, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” This story has been used to claim that God has taken the kingdom away from the Jews. Among Protestants this reading was probably used to suggest that God would take away his kingdom from the Roman Catholics. Maybe there are Mormons somewhere using this same parable to claim that God was taking the kingdom away from the Protestants.
Our reading from Isaiah shows where Jesus got the story. Isaiah criticizes leaders of his own society. He suggests that their work is not bearing productive fruit and that as a result God will permit the vineyard (as a symbol for the people of Israel) to be dismantled. Jesus personalizes and intensifies the story. His version is not merely about failure, but about greed, theft and murder.
In the vineyard owner, Jesus chooses an odd character to make as his example. Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) conquered almost the whole known ancient world three hundred years before Jesus’ time. His conquest brought Greek culture and language to the Holy Land. The Greek-speaking kings who governed after his death would expropriate land and either grant it to their strongest supporters or sell it to
wealthy foreigners. Jewish people deeply resented these absentee landlords and foreign overseers who would often claim between 40 and 50 percent of the produce.2
This introduces new complexity into Isaiah’s simple story. Who are you meant to be? Are you a greedy tenant, or someone unfairly oppressed by a distant tyrant, hoping to finally own the full fruits of your own labor? Are you the distant owner initially feeling frustration because of your dependence on nameless serfs and then through your own tragic miscalculation, bearing some responsibility for endangering your son? Can you feel some of the rage that follows this realization? Or are you the son, proud of your position and responsibility, an elite who suddenly and tragically discovers his own vulnerability?
1. Let me make two points this morning. First, this story reminds me that ultimately evil does not prevail. In Junior High School I had a friend named Phil. One day Phil’s older brother Steve and his girlfriend were forced into a van at gunpoint in the supermarket around the corner from my house. They drove down to Putah Creek where both teenagers were killed. Years later, DNA evidence linked these deaths to a man who committed a string of murders across the west. Two sweet and perfect teenagers died a terrible death because this man enjoyed the sense of power that killing made him feel. This week the events in Las Vegas brought that terrible experience back to me.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about what he called “Radical Evil.”3 Human beings harm others out of our own self-interest, but we are also capable of completely inexplicable cruelty. Jesus’ story reminds me that there is nowhere for evil to hide from God. Even when everything seems to be spinning out of control, evil does not have the last word.
2. My second point is more subtle and difficult. Jesus’ parable is not just about evil people out there. It is about what happens in me too. God cares about what we do. In fact, that might even be the primary meaning of this story.
Two hundred years ago, the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) wrote that many of our opinions about Christ’s Last Judgment arise out of, “a vengeful desire to enhance the misery of unbelievers, and to exclude them from… the good.”4 For him, the Last Judgment at its best symbolizes the hope that one day all beings will be freed from evil actions to such a great extent that evil will in effect cease to exist.5
Until then we all face an inner struggle. The amazing thing about this story is that Jesus does not really supply an ending. He gives the Pharisees a set of circumstances and they are the ones who say that the vineyard owner will put the tenants “to a miserable
death.” But this is not what Jesus himself says, or more profoundly, this is not how God acts when it comes to Jesus.
When God sends the Son into the vineyard where he is killed, this story is not about how his persecutors are humiliated and put to justice. The story of Jesus is about how life overcomes fear and death. It is about the power of forgiveness, how God brings about healing and wholeness in miraculous ways. In his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul describes the zeal with which he persecuted the followers of Jesus. He even participated in the murder of St. Stephen. God didn’t put him to death but showed him a whole new way of being.
God moved Paul’s heart so deeply that he came to “regard everything as loss” compared to, “the surpassing value of knowing Jesus” (Phil. 3). He lived for this love, because in his words, “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3). Under God’s care and in the face of this forgiveness he became one of the most faithful of all Jesus’ disciples in history.
In conclusion, Jesus does not tell the parable of the vineyard tenants to give Jews, Christians, Protestants or even Mormons a sense of ancestral entitlement or the right to condemn whole classes of people. Jesus tells us this story both to remind us that God is in charge (that vengeance belongs to the Lord) and that God’s ways of forgiveness and love surpass human understanding. We have the chance to change right now. In our hearts we carry, we are, the tenants and the landlord and the son.
You may have heard an old story that the Chippewa Indians used to tell about a young boy and his grandfather. The old man tells him about the fierce battle within every person between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is greed, lies, jealousy, anger, condemnation, prejudice, distrust and fear. He feels superior, insecure and self-pitying at the same time.
The other wolf is good. He is strong, gentle, kind, self-sacrificing and true. He has faith. He is at peace and he shares everything with a generous and joyful heart. The young boy asks his grandfather, “which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies “the one you feed.”
1 Edwards’ “Farewell Sermon” is printed in many different volumes. The story I tell here is influenced by Philip F. Gura, Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical (NY: Hill and Wang, 2005), 162-4.
2 Herman, C. Waetjen, “Intimations of the Year of Jubilee in the Parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Workers in the Vineyard,” Journal of Religion and Theology in Namibia, 1, 1999.
3 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.
4 Frierich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Tr. H.R. Macintosh and J.S. Steward (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928), 715-7.
5 Being part of a twenty-first century democracy makes us partly responsible for a lot of terrible things. The Arctic ice cap continues to shrink. Scientists agree that this is mostly because of emissions from our smokestacks and tailpipes. Although the science of global climate change proves that we need to act immediately, ordinary self-interested people refuse to change. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich points out that the Greek word for truth aleithia means literally to unveil something. For ancient Greeks truth is discovered, the opposite of truth is opinion. For Christians, the opposite of truth is a lie. Truth is not something that is known, but something that we do in relation to others. Tillich writes, “You cannot have an opinion about the Christ after you have faced him. You can only do the truth by following Him, or lie by denying him.”
5 For Jesus himself truth is a form of action. He says, “Anyone who hears my words and acts on them is like the wise man who builds his house on a rock” (Mt. 7:24).
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11).
On Monday afternoon I was riding my bicycle up California Street when I saw a friend who I’ve known for twenty years. We stopped to talk and I invited him to today’s celebration of St. Francis (1181/2-1226) the patron saint of our city. He told me that he would not be here in a way that puzzled me. He wasn’t going out of town or doing something else. Finally he just said it. “I grew up in the South on a farm and I believe animals shouldn’t be in church.”
This morning I want to think with you about a simple question, “Why do we bless animals in church?” I’m going to begin by talking about two ways that human beings have understood animals and then go on to the effects of these views and conclude with a kind of theology for our connection to other species.
St. Francis in many respects rephrased the question, “What is ultimately real.” Instead he asked, “Where should our attention be if we want to grasp the most significant thing about God, the world and ourselves?” Francis believed that we meet God when we are not distracted by wealth, when we serve people who are suffering, and when we dedicate ourselves to worship and prayer. He also believed that we come in relation to God through our encounter with other beings. People remember Francis as a person who loved and even spoke to animals.
The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) also took seriously the idea that animals have their own inner life. He delighted in the way they have a different perception of the world. He writes, “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?… We entertain each other… If I have my time to begin or refuse, so has she hers.”
This view of Francis and Montaigne has been bitterly criticized over the years by thinkers like René Descartes (1596-1650). Montaigne and Descartes lived in the midst of and aftermath of terrible religious wars. They each had a very different reaction. Montaigne emphasized the multiplicity of perspectives (even among humans and animals). Descartes longed for absolute certainty.
Montaigne philosophized by writing about his cat and noticed many ways that animals are superior to us. Descartes famously sat alone before a fire and tried to forget everything so that he could get down to the most irrefutable foundations of human knowledge. “Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.”
Descartes was a dualist who concluded that the world is made up of two kinds of things: body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. For him, only humans have a conscious, immaterial mind. According to Descartes animals lack souls and do not truly think. They are machines programmed to run, eat, drink, yawn, sneeze, hunt, bark and care for their young. He believed that they have no inner life.
Long ago all human species lived on the Afro-Eurasian landmass. The evidence is fairly convincing that homo sapiens wiped out our nearest humanoid cousins. At that time the world, especially the Outer World which had no humans, had an extraordinary diversity of land animals. Massive extinctions occurred when humans arrived.
Australia had a marsupial lion, flightless birds twice the size of ostriches, 450 pound kangaroos and a two and a half ton wombat. Of the 24 Australian animal species weighing one hundred pounds or more, 23 went extinct.
Our ancestors crossed the first land bridge into Alaska 16,000 years ago. At first, until 12,000 BC glaciers blocked their way. In only 2,000 years humans colonized two continents all the way down to the island of Tierra del Fuego. When they arrived they discovered mammoths, mastodons, rodents the size of bears, herds of horses and camels, saber-toothed tigers, lions and dozens of species totally unlike what we have today. We had giant ground sloths that weighed up to eight tons and reached a height of twenty feet.
North America lost 34 of its 47 genera of large mammals. South America lost 50 out of sixty. This is not to even mention thousands of smaller species that were lost. This first wave of extinctions happened before the beginning of cities. The second wave occurred through the spread of farming and the third wave arises out of industrialization. With rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we are changing the planet in ways that we cannot fathom.
Animals useful to humans have had a different experience. It is important to recognize that not many wild animals are even capable of being domesticated. Out of 148 big wild terrestrial herbivorous species of mammals only 14 were domesticated before the twentieth century. 9 of these became livestock animals in a limited geographical area. 5 species of mammals have become widespread around the world: cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses.
While thousands of species have been extinguished the animals humans find useful have proliferated. But their evolutionary success is utterly meaningless. The lifespan of a chicken is 7-12 years. Cattle naturally live between 20-25 years. When these animals are raised for food many are killed after having lived only a few weeks to a few months. A milk cow lives five years before being slaughtered. During that time it is almost constantly pregnant with its calves separated from her at birth. Most industrial farm animals lead nightmarish lives. They are confined, physically uncomfortable and afraid. Their natural instincts are thwarted and social connections severed. The prophet Jeremiah says, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness” (Jer. 22).
At the heart of our life is a longing for delight. St. Augustine teaches that this delight moves us to what is good. We can experience this joy in God’s creation and in our encounter with creatures who differ from us.
The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) writes that, “If humankind could have known about God without the world, God would never have created the world.” Our encounter with other beings matters for our spiritual life.
In John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost Satan walks on earth and talks about how God is at the center of everything. God’s spirit is in the earth, “productive in herb, plant and nobler birth / Of creatures animate with gradual life / Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man. / With what delight I could have walked thee round, / If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange / Of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains… But neither here (on earth) seek I, no nor in heav’n / To dwell…” Instead what Satan seeks is “others to make such / As I… For only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts…”
Satan longs so much for power over others that he cannot experience delight. Perhaps our society has become too much like that also. We fail to appreciate the wonder of creation.
A few weeks ago I was surfing alone at Ocean Beach by Sloat Avenue. A rode a long beaker into thigh deep water and turned to paddle out again. And not five yards away a Sea Lion popped out of the water. Her face had a look of total surprise that is just as vivid to me now as when she appears. We recognized something in each other.
Cynics have long said that pets love us only for our food. Recently scientists using MRI scanning equipment have determined that this is wrong. Mostly our pets actually love us for us. It turns out that Descartes is wrong. Animals have rich inner lives. They cannot tell us much about them in words but their brains respond in the same way that ours do. In fact dogs’ brains have evolved to recognize faces.
So what are we to do with our speechless and religionless fellow beings? Last week we had my former teacher Margaret Miles as our Forum. In her book about her husband Owen’s dementia she writes about how demoralizing it felt for her. Owen was a priest and theologian who prayed and read scripture every day of his life. She writes that at first she felt, “deeply shaken to see how little his religion seemed to help him” as the dementia advanced. Over time she realized that, “those who love the dying person must carry on religious practice on his or her behalf… Not knowing if he remembers, recognizes, feels or understands the rituals we shared.”
Why do we bless animals? We bless them because we believe that they are not machines and because we have done them such great harm? We bless the wild animals who range just beyond our conscious awareness. We bless the animals who recognize us when we come home and who love us. We bless them for the deepest desires in our hearts that make this mysterious creation our home. We bless them and pray on their behalf for the love of God. And they bless us.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 152, 159.
 Cited in Sarah Bakewell, How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (NY: Other Press, 2010) 136.
 Ibid., 134-9.
 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (NY: Harper, 2015) 74.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid., 71-74.
 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (NY: Norton, 1997) 157-175.
 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (NY: Harper, 2015) 91-97.
 Meister Eckhart, “Consideravit Semitas, Sermons on Proverbs 31:27,” The Complete Works of Meister Eckhart. Tr. Maurice Walsh (NY: Crossroads, 2009) 275. Richard Rohr 9/28/17.
 productive in herb, plant and nobler birth / Of creatures animate with gradual life / Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man. / With what delight I could have walked thee round, / If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange / Of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains, / Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned, / Rocks, dens, and caves; but I in none of these / Find place or refuge; and the more I see / Pleasures about me, so much more I feel / Torment within me, as from the hateful siege / Of contraries; all good to me becomes / Bane, and in heav’n much worse would be my state. / But neither here (on earth) seek I, no nor in heav’n / To dwell, unless by maistering heav’n’s Supreme; / nor hope to make myself less miserable / By what I seek, but others to make such / As I though thereby worse to me redound: / For only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts
John Milton, Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds Sources Criticism ed. Scott Elledge (NY: Norton, 1975) 186-7.
 Claudia Dreifus, “Gregory Berns Knows What Your Dog Is Thinking (It’s Sweet),” The New York Times, 8 September 2017.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Long Goodbye: Dementia Diaries (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017) 70
John Milton, St. Michael and All the Angels
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser has been thrown down…” (Rev. 12).
One of the first funerals I ever presided at was for a man who took his own life. I think so often about him and the many other funerals where I had the realization that the person who died had been carrying a burden that no one else knew about. What is the war going on inside you? What battles do you fight with yourself?
In 1667 at the age of fifty-nine the British poet John Milton (1608-1674) published his poem Paradise Lost, one of the masterpieces of the English language. Milton himself was a conflicted person. It was not easy to be married to him. He had become completely blind fifteen years earlier. He suffered a great deal of pain during the time he dictated the poem to the friends who wrote it all down. Let me give a very short summary of his story.
St. Michael wielding a sword that cuts even angels wounds Satan, the one known as “the Accuser.” With his demons Satan falls through the vast gulf separating heaven from the abyss. There, he gathers his armies in hell and promises, “To wage by force or guile eternal war Irreconciliable, to our grand foe.” God and the good are his enemies.1
Addressing his forces Satan says, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n, / What matter where, I be still the same.” He means that it does not matter if he stands in heaven or hell. What counts is what he takes with him. Satan goes on to say that he is jealous of God. He says that it is, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n.”2
So Satan resolves to ruin God’s creation in the way that a vandal might spraypaint a stained glass window or deface a beautiful work of art. He goes to Eve and Adam and tricks them into defying God. At first he seems to have succeeded and goes into hell to celebrate, but then he watches as each person in his army becomes a snake.
In the end St. Michael goes to Adam and Eve to remove them from Paradise. For the pair to survive outside of the Garden of Eden they will need wisdom. So he shows them
all the things that will happen in the future up until the flood. Then he gives them this last advice.
“[T]hou has attained the sum of wisdom… only add / deeds to thy knowledge… add faith, / Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love, / … called charity, the soul / of the rest: then wilt thou not be loath / To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / a paradise within thee happier far.”3 In only one way he seems to agree with Satan. That is, both believe that what you carry around in your heart is more important than where you are. The secret Michael shares with Adam and Eve is that we can bring heaven wherever we go. The goodness of heaven can be where we are.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Michael and All the Angels. Michael is the opposite of the accuser. He brings wisdom, the larger picture of how life changes over time and this encourages us. In the same way he advises Adam and Eve.
An angel is a messenger. An archangel carries the highest message. The word angel is linguistically related to the Greek word euangellion which means good news. When our choir sings at evensong, on Sundays, or at concerts they bring good news.
But even more than that each of us has the chance to bring good news with our life. We can help people who are conflicted. Milton’s point is that this story is about you, about your inner life. Will you nurture thoughts that belittle other people so that you can feel superior? or will you bring hope wherever you go and build up the people around you? Can you be like St. Michael as a force of encouragement and wisdom.
1 John Milton, Paradise Lost ed. Scott Elledge (NY: Norton, 1975) 9.
2 Ibid., 13.
3 Ibid., 279.
“So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20).
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a long line of people. Far ahead, out of sight on the other side of a hill lies the American dream. You seem pretty far back but it is scary how many people are behind you. Mostly they are people of color without college degrees.
In principle you wish them well, but you have waited a long time and worked many hours to get here. You don’t complain but you have been exposed to dangerous work conditions. Your body is worn out. Your pension was cut. There don’t seem to be any jobs these days and some of your friends have just given up trying.
Always on time, you don’t cut corners. You do your best. People like you made this country great. You faithfully followed the rules but you notice that up ahead others are cutting in line. Some made bad decisions before the 2008 financial crisis; others are immigrants and refugees. Through affirmative action programs the Federal Government is putting them ahead of you.
When the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild interviewed people in the Louisiana Tea Party she discovered that what united them was not so much a party platform or a set of policies but what she calls a deep story. A deep story helps to explain our feelings. In this case it is about honor, fear, shame, resentment and the relation between social groups. Her study subjects instantly recognized themselves in this story.
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that, “human nature is… intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental,” that, “an obsession with righteousness (leading to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition… a feature of our evolutionary design.” He goes on to point out that we are not primarily rational creatures. Our moral intuitions come first. Then we make up a rational argument to justify these feelings.
You can test this yourself. Next time you read a newspaper or drive a car try noticing, “the little flashes of condemnation that flit through your consciousness.” We constantly, without effort, form moral judgments. At this preconscious level we make sense of the world and the meaning of our lives. Furthermore this basic non-rationality leads us to be even more resistant to change than we realize.
In the face of our human nature Jesus confronts us with his own deep story about the realm of God. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words he challenges, “the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night.”
Jesus’ example could not be more familiar. Right now in Madera, Fulton, Turlock, Winters and thousands of towns across the West, Spanish-speaking day laborers stand around waiting to be hired. In this case the landowner, an oikodespote, literally a “house despot” hires workers at dawn agreeing to pay them one denarius.
He returns four times to hire more workers. At the end of the workday he lines them all up to be paid. The workers are astonished when the foreman starts with those who were hired last and then pays every one of the workers one denarius or a full day’s wage.
One of my favorite Geek words is gonguzo. It sounds like what it means, “to grumble.” Most of us feel sympathetic to their complaint. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden (the weight) of the day and the scorching heat” (Mt. 20). Being paid last only adds insult to injury.
In what respect does Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is like this? It might help to look at the context in which he tells this parable. Immediately before this Jesus tells the disciples that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19). Peter responds to this, bragging that, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
Immediately after the vineyard parable the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants her sons to be honored with the best thrones in Jesus’ kingdom at his right and left hand. She has in mind satin pillows, gold armrests, engraved coats of arms when Jesus knows that he will come into glory on the hard wood of the cross with a sign that says “King of the Jews.” He answers, “You do not know what you are asking.” We understand the irony but perhaps not his lesson.
Between 1932 and 1967 the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) in thirteen volumes wrote more than 9,000 pages of his never-completed Church Dogmatics. He re-wrote the earliest sections trying to establish his theological method. Barth did not want to begin with a particular philosophical or scientific picture of what it means to be human. He was concerned both that these kinds of ideas are constantly changing and that these assumptions would bias our theological conclusions.
Instead he had this idea of beginning with the Word of God. Faith does not come from inductive or deductive reasoning. Through the Holy Spirit, scripture and preaching God gives us faith. Perhaps like our moral psychologists, Barth understands that we are not as rational as we like to think we are.
According to Barth scripture becomes a way of getting beyond our natural self-righteousness with its “little flashes of condemnation.” He writes, “As [one] knows God’s word… It becomes real… There takes place an understanding, a personal involvement, an acceptance, an assent, an approval, a making present of remote times, an obedience, a decision, a halting before the mystery, a stimulation by the inner life, a basing of man’s whole life on this mystery that is beyond himself.”
We need this help right now more than ever, as individuals and as a society. Our two greatest problems are the environment and an existential crisis about the meaning of work. Since the 1970’s when American jobs began moving offshore we have been experiencing the effects of globalization. Really this is a subset of vast and disruptive technological change that has only just begun. This will affect every sector of our society. We are not just talking about jobs in manufacturing, coal mining and steel. The Los Angeles Times newsroom has only a third of the people it did at the turn of the century.
If you spend a day in Mountain View California you may see as many as a dozen driverless cars. The next generation of these robots will soon replace the 3.5 million professional truck drivers (and many of the 5.2 million other people who work in this industry).
We have to face up to the reality that, whether you like it or not, today earning is becoming decoupled from wealth. Yes, in the future how hard you work will have even less to do with what you ultimately receive. Although this accelerating problem has been with us for a while, politicians have no idea what to do about it. The left has not taken the problem seriously enough. Right leaning politicians bent on shrinking the government and cutting taxes have only exacerbated massive inequality that threatens our democracy itself.
The problem is that work gives us meaning. Since 1999 death rates for middle-aged white people have increased dramatically. More and more people are dying of despair and hopelessness, from suicide and addiction. The poverty breaking families today, and the isolation of having no meaningful contribution to make, is creating an epidemic of loneliness.
In many respects it is strange that Jesus’ story about the day laborers troubles us at all. Imagine being there and the feeling of the last workers’ gratitude as they hear that they are being paid twelve times what they had earned. Nearly everyone in the story is better off than they expected and even the early morning workers received fair pay. And yet we feel dissatisfied.
What we think Jesus’ story means depends on what we believe we deserve. For whatever reason many of us tend to identify with the early morning workers. We grumble that the vineyard owner is not fair and that the Kingdom of Heaven might not be either. We do not understand it but the God of Jesus seems to love everyone without even thinking about who deserves it.
Really submitting to the authority of scripture even in difficult passages this Word transforms us so that we do not merely go through life reacting thoughtlessly to what upsets us. Barth writes, “The Christian is not a stone that is pushed or a ball that is made to roll. The Christian is the [one] who through the Word and the love of God has been made alive, the real [one], able to love God in return, standing erect just because he has been humbled, humbling himself because he has been raised up.”
Imagine that line of people again. Only this time rather than finding yourself in the thought experiment of a sociologist, picture yourself among the laborers waiting to be paid. Do you even know where you stand in this line? What do you think you deserve from God?
If you find the tumult of today’s politics unsettling, it may actually get worse. As technological change accelerates and upends all the social arrangements that comfort us, there does not seem to be much hope for you and me, for creatures who constantly and often harshly judge others without thinking.
And yet Jesus still invites us to be his people. Can we believe in Jesus enough to put him ahead of our self-righteousness? Can we put God in the place of our picture of fairness? What will it take for us to allow our hearts to believe that God loves everyone equally, for God’s deep story to become our own?
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (NY: The New Press, 2016), 135-151.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) xiii.
 Ibid., 45.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 100.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1936) 219.
 James Warren, “Big Cuts Coming to L.A. Times, Likely Other Tribune Papers Amid Tumult,” Poynter 15 September 2015. https://www.poynter.org/2015/big-cuts-coming-to-l-a-times-likely-other-tribune-papers-amid-tumult/373014/
 Santens, Scott. “Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck.” Medium. 14 May 2015.https://medium.com/basic-income/self-driving-trucks-are-going-to-hit-us-like-a-human-driven-truck-b8507d9c5961(accessed July 12, 2017).
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
 Jessica Boddy, “The Forces Driving Middle-Aged White People’s ‘Deaths of Despair,” Shots: Health News from NPR 23 March 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 662.