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Sunday, October 21
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, October 18
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, October 21
Booking My Place
Preacher: The Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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It is easy for us to condemn James and John for trying to book the left and right hand seats in heaven for themselves. Maybe we should ask ourselves how often, and how we try and book our own spaces next to Jesus.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#RobertSapolsky, #ThomasPiketty, #inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, July 22
Our Favorite Fictional Character
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Our Favorite Fictional Character

“[Y]ou who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace…” (Eph. 2).

  1. Each of us is our own favorite fictional character in a story that we tell about ourselves every minute of our lives. We find this drama endlessly interesting. The story we tell inside our hearts may be preventing us from reaching our potential. It could be destroying us, or it might be the only thing keeping us alive. That interior monologue may so fill us with joy that it transforms the lives of all those around us.[1]

This week my wife Heidi gave me an early anniversary gift. She put together a thick binder with 125 letters I wrote during our courtship. They opened a window into the inner stories I told my twenty-three year old self. Back then I worried about whether I was the intellectual equal of my fellow classmates. I doubted that I would ever be able to support my family and most of all I dwelled on my parents’ opinions of me.

We spend an enormous amount of energy trying to prove that the story we tell ourselves is an accurate one. We want others to believe it and frankly we want our story to be right. Still the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says that, “we love made-up people, people we have made up to be the people we can love.”[2]

To be human means to be always in danger of creating an idyll. That is, a private and constructed reality, over and against the common social world that surrounds us. My friend and teacher Margaret Miles described her parent’s Christian fundamentalism as, “a private, carefully sheltered, unrealistic and frayed idyll.” She writes that because of all the commonsense assumptions of our shared social world, it takes incredible strength to sustain an idyll. Idylls tend to collapse not because they are illusory, but because they require an enormous amount of energy to maintain.[3]

Sometimes what seems most real isn’t. Over the past two years many of us have begun to answer the personal question, “how are you?” with a report on what the politicians are doing. Collectively we have been contributing to a shared dys-idyll nightmare which reinforces the sense that the only thing that matters happens in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the simplest definition of a Christian is a person who agrees to have her story corrected through the presence of the living Christ and the church. Prayer extracts us from the grips of our own idyll and brings us back to reality. Prayer gives us the chance to step back from this fictional character who claims all our attention so that we can see other people as children of God.

  1. Our Gospel today reports on outer events that give us a picture of what might be happening in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples. You may have noticed that verses have been excerpted out of the reading in order to fit a regular worship service. I will try to fill in what we missed (and encourage you to read them at home).

The narrative begins at a high point. After having been sent out in twos Jesus’ friends have met with remarkable success. We do not have many opportunities to see them at work apart from Jesus. They have been healing and teaching with great success and probably relish telling him their stories.

He recognizes their need for rest so they try to withdraw to a “deserted place by themselves” (Mk. 6). But the crowds follow them wherever they go. They do not even have time to eat. Rather than feeling frustrated Jesus has compassion on them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The Greek word for feeling compassion, splagxnizomai means the kind of love that grabs in the guts.

Jesus simply loves these sheep and so he asks his disciples to help feed them. Even after their great successes they respond with sarcasm. “Are we… to buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” After the five thousand have been fed and twelve baskets of leftovers have been collected Jesus leaves everyone to pray on a mountain alone.

He rejoins the terrified disciples on a boat in the midst of a great storm. In the calm that follows the disciples, “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk. 6). Then Jesus returns to healing the people of Gennesaret.

A story that began with triumph and success collapses into misunderstanding and fear. Rather than working with Jesus for the sake of God’s Realm the disciples step back into passivity and fear as they watch him work alone. He has been teaching, but they seem incapable of learning. Despite the abundance, the healing, and being saved from the storm their interior monologue resists being changed.

  1. Karl Barth. Some of you remember that I have been systematically studying the life work of Karl Barth (1886-1968) a twentieth century Swiss Reformed Theologian. Between the end of World War I and his death in the 1960’s Barth wrote an incomplete thirteen volume, 9,000 page systematic approach to theological knowledge.

My primary advisors and teachers were shaped through their opposition to Barth’s ideas. My dream is that by really understanding his perspective, I will be better informed in what I believe and teach. I should mention that I have not yet met a single person who thinks this is a good idea. Finishing the fourth volume (CD II.2) I want to report on my progress.

As a Reformed theologian following in the footsteps of John Calvin, Barth values God’s sovereignty above everything else. God creates, sustains and redeems us. God, “governs and determines everything.”[4] We have no power to compel God. God can never owe us. Furthermore we have not learned to say the word “God” correctly if we speak only in abstractions as if we can stop being totally dependent on God.

For centuries reformed theologians argued that God had chosen and set apart some people from before the beginning of the world, and then they agonized over those left out of the divine plan. Karl Barth seems to have a different idea in mind. He writes that the whole gospel is about election. Jesus does not leave people out so predestination, “is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation,” but rather “a proclamation of joy.”[5]

This “love of God is His grace… It is love which is overflowing, free, unconstrained, unconditioned… It is love which is patient, not consuming the other but giving it place.”[6] For Barth, the world was created not so that we would be God’s slaves but because God desires to be the “companion of [each person]. Against our No [God] places his own Nevertheless… the creature’s opposition to [God’s] love cannot be any obstacle to [God].”[7]

We are not disinterested spectators. God’s love is not abstract, not something that we deduce from the laws of physics, but individual and personal. No believer should ever regard another’s example of unbelief as permanent.[8] Faithful people need to constantly proclaim in personal terms that those in our lives are “not rejected” by God.[9]  Jesus is the only one chosen by God, but through him all creation is made free.

Barth goes as far as to say that even Judas, the one who rejected Jesus and conspired with those who arrested him, never stopped being an apostle. We are like the disciples who experience such great things and repeatedly hear Jesus’ teaching, only through fear to fall short in understanding and faith. God’s abundance and grace is for us as it was for them.

  1. Study Hall. A while ago a friend of mine named James and I were discussing Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending. We talked about going back to the people we knew in our youth and seeing things through our adult eyes. He told me this story.

In high school study hall James met a boy who mostly kept to himself. But when the two of them started talking about music, books and philosophy it almost felt like time stopped. They became close. One Friday James gave his friend the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace and inscribed it inside the front cover.

The next Monday his friend approached him to talk, “My parents said that we can’t be friends.” And that was it. They didn’t speak again, until twenty years later when circumstances brought them together. At that time James first visited his now adult friend’s house. It was as if nothing had changed. In fact the friend’s wife kept repeating how great it was to meet someone who meant so much to her husband and that he frequently talked about his high school friend James.

So what happened back then? James always thought it was because he was African American. I wondered if the parents thought the boys were romantically interested in each other. But it was for neither reason. Last week I talked about how vulnerable children are. The friend’s parents had been in the process of splitting up. They didn’t want anyone to know and so they kept James’ friend isolated during his high school years. Only recently did James realize what his small kindness really meant. Sometimes it takes half our life for our story to be made true.

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “I circle around God, around the primordial tower. / I’ve been circling for thousands of years / and I still don’t know: am I a falcon, / a storm, or a great song?”[10] We too circle God sometimes drawing closer to the truth in the great song of our prayer. What is your story? What do you tell yourself about the fictional character that is you?

Our story and the story of every unbeliever is not final. The disciples of Jesus hardened their hearts and resisted but ultimately God won them over. They rediscovered their power in the hope of Jesus’ message. Likewise let your story of reconciliation and forgiveness and above all your joy transform everyone you meet.

[1] Margaret Ruth Miles, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011) 23.

[2] Margaret recommended this book to me so many years ago and it continues to influence my understanding of emotions and reason. Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (NY: Oxford University Press, 1992) 326.

[3] Margaret Ruth Miles, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011) 30.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 The Doctrine of God tr. Bromiley, Campbell, Wilson, McNab, Knight, Stewart (NY: T&T Clarke, 1957) 7, 5.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 28.

[8] Ibid., 327.

[9] Ibid., 322.

[10] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (NY: Riverhead Books, 1996) 48.

Thursday, July 19
Why a Rugby Evensong?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10).

A year ago when Ellen Clark King, the Cathedral’s Executive Pastor, and I heard that the World Seven’s would be in San Francisco this summer we instantly knew what we had to do. We felt compelled to host a Rugby Evensong. Since then dozens of people have asked us “What is a rugby evensong?”

I need to begin by saying something about what evensong and rugby are. Evensong has a special meaning to the global English-speaking church. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) and the other originators of this tradition imagined that profound daily worship should not just be for monks and nuns. They took the monastic service and shared it with everyone.

We love how Evensong especially values harmony, beauty, simplicity and humility. It is about the daily rhythm of our life, the movement from light and security into the perils of the dark. It is about the way God blesses every moment of our day, and our life, and even our death.

At first, rugby might seem like just a game that began around the time this Cathedral was founded in the middle of the nineteenth century. At Rugby School in England William Webb Ellis famously broke the rules and picked up the ball and started running. The game that grew from that act, involves moving an oblong ball up field by passing it backwards or laterally to your teammates as opponents try to stop the ball by tackling you.

Of course there is so much more to it than this. Rugby also includes kickoffs, rucks, line outs, scrums, kicking to touch, etc. The sport involves far less individual specialization than American football or baseball. As a result its players exhibit an impressive overall athleticism that makes it unique. Everyone on the field plays defense and can score. Every player has a high level of stamina, strength, speed and agility.

Rugby is a dangerous activity. It requires physical courage. This week we will be praying for players in the tournament and around the world. We will pray that all players will use the courage they learned on the field to make our world better.

This all brings us back to our original question. Why would Grace Cathedral host what might be the world’s first Rugby Evensong? I have two answers.

First, in our mostly automated world rugby is one of the human endeavors that requires a total commitment of one’s whole self. Every player on the pitch needs to maintain complete focus physically, emotionally and mentally. This makes it a kind of metaphor for the spiritual life. At no moment do we cease to be spiritual beings. To use a phrase from William James there are no moral holidays, our actions matter.

In our gospel reading tonight Jesus asks a young man to answer his own question about inheriting eternal life. To do this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10). Just as William Webb Ellis broke the rules to create something new and beautiful Jesus asks us to do the same. We are called to love our neighbors in ways that might upset how things are usually done.

Second, rugby in my experience is unique in its culture of fellowship and unity. In our society winning has become everything. Yesterday a New York Times reporter pointed out that this naturally leads to “toxic hostility” even toward youth game referees.[1] In rugby excellence matters but there is always a higher value.

I’m grateful to have been introduced into adulthood by older rugby players and coaches who understood how important this spirit of fellowship is. In my days as a player and coach we always hosted opposing teams for meals after the game. It was a chance to celebrate and socialize. After the best game of my life I remember meeting the player who had just broken my finger. His family owned a restaurant along Highway 80 and I always think of him when I drive past there.

This week Barak Obama gave a lecture on the centenary celebration of Nelson Mandela’s birth.[2] He talked about the long road from colonialism and racism to a new world of democracy and human dignity. In these times of polarization and distrust rugby is part of how we overcome the greatest challenges of our time.

In the rhythm of my life I have become old enough so that I will probably never charge down the rugby pitch to make a tackle, or leap into the air to catch a lineout or kickoff, or bury my head in the scrum. But I still dream of these things. More than ever before I have come to understand the darkness and perils of this life.

But I also have a greater appreciation for the power of humble people, for the way that simple human fellowship can drive away despair. And with every year, I grow in gratitude that through each moment God continues to preserve and nurture us.

[1] Bill Penningnton, “Parents Behaving Badly: A Youth Sports Crisis Caught on Video,” The New York Times, 18 July 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/18/sports/referee-parents-abuse-videos.html?emc=edit_sp_20180719&nl=sports&nlid=1350863320180719&te=1

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/world/africa/obama-speech-south-africa-transcript.html

Sunday, July 15
King Philosopher Television Celebrity
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known” (Mk. 6).

I remember endless summer days as a four-year sitting in my plastic wheelbarrow on the grass. I pretended that it was my boat, safe on a vast green sea. On this magnificent day imagine this great cathedral with its redwood-like columns and stained-glass filtered light similarly as your haven of safety. No matter what storms may be gathering in your life, or in the society that surrounds us, we have found a joyful, beautiful place of peace.

What a blessing it is for us to be here! For twenty years I have been away on vacation during this week of the church year.[1] Today’s stories feel so fresh and vivid to me. It’s almost as if someone had discovered new passages from the Bible.

In this year of reading Mark’s Gospel together we thought we knew what to expect – concise, compact, abrupt, simple – the unembellished skeleton of God’s good news for us. And then today suddenly Mark stops being like Mark. Instead of being the writer who leaves the most up to our imagination, without warning he becomes the one to give us the overlooked details of a compelling story.

I think he does this to show our whole human predicament in a miniature form. In a single tragic story Mark brings us back to first principles, to the basic facts of existence, so that we can understand what we need to do in our complicated lives.

Mark tells us that Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs. They travel light through all the cities of the region. They ask people to repent. They cast out demons and heal those who are sick. They meet with such extraordinary success that even King Herod hears about their adventures. But just before they get back home to Jesus, before they can tell him what they have learned, Mark interjects what might seem like a parenthetical story about something that happened earlier (Mk. 6:30). It is the story of John the Baptist.

My dictionary says that the word apostle can mean Jesus’ disciples, or important leaders of the early church, or the first missionaries in a new land. It comes from the Greek word apostello or “to send.” Mark tells this story about two ways of being sent, about the two paths that constantly open up in the journey of our own lives: the way of Herod and the way of Jesus.

Mark’s story feels so contemporary. More than at any other time in my life we are entranced by the personalities of wealthy, powerful celebrities. We have been getting used to the experience of the personal suddenly breaking in to public life with enormous consequences.

To choose just one example it seems as if decisions about who gets pardoned and who stays condemned seem more arbitrary, more political than ever.[2] What could be more relevant today than a swaggering, bragging king delighted by his daughter’s performance and distanced from his wife, making promises with life and death consequences, which he does not want to keep.

In the Cathedral’s year of truth we notice that the ball starts rolling when John the Baptist speaks the truth. He points out that King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife is illegal. This offends Herod’s wife who holds a grudge against him. She wants to kill him but has no power to do so. Herod sends (apostello) his henchmen to overpower John and put him in prison.

Herod comes to respect John’s holiness, righteousness and goodness. He takes pleasure in hearing John talk even though he cannot always follow what John is saying.[3]

At his birthday banquet Herod’s daughter dances so beautifully that he repeats his oath that he will give her anything even up to half his kingdom.[4] Filled with hate the girl’s mother asks her for John the Baptist’s head on a plate. Herod feels “deeply grieved” but everything happens quickly as he sends (apostello) his men to behead John in prison. This week I kept thinking about the shock John must have felt at this moment when the executioner arrived on the instruction of the king who felt connected to him.

The Greek word Mark uses for Herodias’s grudge also means “entangled” (enexō) and that image defines this dysfunctional family.[5] Mark contrasts them with healthy families like Jairus who seeks healing for his daughter (Mk. 5:22).

And here we see how this story summarizes our human predicament. Each person in Herod’s family wants to be loved but tragically cannot get what he or she really needs. Herod’s wife wants to be valued and loved as queen and to not have anyone questioning the legitimacy of her position. At the same time she seems to have little power to satisfy her desire. She can only try to persuade, to use love to manipulate others. But even this is not enough to compel her husband to love her.

Their daughter did not ask for her parents to be at odds and yet she is forced to choose between them. She will always have the murder of a holy person on her conscience and the image of John’s head on a platter in her memory.

Herod too cares about the respect of his guests and the love of a daughter who chose his wife over him. He cares about John and is forced into a situation in which he has to kill someone he likes. In the face of this tragedy I have two questions. First, what is the difference between Herod’s way of sending and that of Jesus? And second, what does it feel like to be sent by God?

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) believed that the holiest thing that you will ever encounter is also one of the most common. It is another person’s face. Behind the face lies a mystery that we can never completely understand but which is at the same time so close to us. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. We have the chance to recognize God every time we encounter another person.

And so Levinas translates the word “philosophy” not as love of wisdom, but as the wisdom of love. He writes about “the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.”[6] He describes ethics as “first philosophy.” He asserts that love comes before every instance of knowing.[7]

The difference between the mission of Herod and that of Jesus is the difference between the impossible task of satisfying our ego and actively seeking the divine mystery in another person. It is the difference between going into the world to control other people (perhaps even ultimately imprisoning and beheading them) versus being sent to cast out demons and heal our universal sickness.

What does this feel like? The children’s television show creator and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers often sounds a lot like Levinas. He says, “Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”[8] Last week my wife and I saw the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It may have a lot to do with the important role the show had in my life, but I have never seen a film before that touched me in quite this way.

It brought about a collision between my childhood and adult selves. It made me understand both how little I knew then, and yet how much I understood. I watched a lot of Mister Rogers as a child but experienced the characters in the Neighborhood of Make Believe so much on their own terms that it didn’t occur to me that Mister Rogers was the main puppeteer.

Mister Rogers felt appalled by children’s television with its cheap violence, clowning and the humiliation of throwing pies in people’s faces. He felt acutely conscious of the vulnerability of children, that their feelings are just as real and intense as ours are. So he dedicated his life to creating a world where children really are treated with respect and cared for, where their fears and concerns are taken seriously.

During the show’s first week on air in 1968 Daniel Tiger asks, “What is assassination?” On the show Rogers talked about war, death, divorce, the painfulness of change. During a time when whites refused to even integrate swimming pools Rogers famously invited Officer François Clemmons, an African American, to share his footbath. At some point in the series someone called the producers of the show to say that Clemmons was visiting a local gay bar. Mister Rogers told him not to go back there.

Still, in an interview you can see how just much Clemmons respected and loved Fred Rogers. He recalls a time when Mister Rogers said, “You are special and I love you just the way you are.” Clemmons joked, “Are you talking to me?” And Mister Rogers said, “I have been for two years, but you are only just now hearing me.” Clemmons went on choking back tears to say that neither his stepfather nor his birth father, no one, had told him that they loved him like that.

In the 1990’s commentators on Fox News asserted that not everyone was special and that Mister Rogers encouraged the sense of entitlement which epitomized exactly what was wrong with America. But in his testimony to Congress twenty years before then Mister Rogers spoke the truth. “You don’t have to do something really outstanding in order to be loved, or to love.”[9]

I talked about playing in my wheelbarrow boat on a grassy sea and about this cathedral as a great harbor of peace and hope. Soon God will feed us a holy meal. And then God will send us back out into the storms of our daily life.

We thought we knew what to expect but in the face of the human predicament we too need to decide on our basic first principles. We have to choose between the path of trying to satisfy the relentless demands of our hungry egos, or the humble way of Jesus, between the fruitless effort to force people to respect us, and the challenge to love others more deeply just the way they are.

Every face presents us with a holy mystery that is so near and yet utterly unfathomable. In this scary world every child gives us another chance to share respect, comfort and wisdom. Brothers and sisters you are special. You are loved. May God bless you – sweet apostles of grace.

#EmmanuelLevinas, #MisterRogers, #Herod

[1] In a phone conversation this week Cynthia Kittridge the President of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas pointed out that this Gospel does not appear in the old prayerbook lectionary but was introduced with the Revised Common Lectionary. Noël Coward said somewhere that work is more fun than fun. I guess that’s true for me too.

[2] https://www.outsideonline.com/2326556/trumps-pardon-hammond-bundy-family?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=WYM-07132018&utm_content=WYM-07132018+CID_84e8f04b8cd3fdac78c49c88f0a820fc&utm_source=campaignmonitor%20outsidemagazine&utm_term=pardoning%20the%20Hammonds

[3] The word aporew in Greek is a conjunction of apo and poreuomai. Bluntly it means “can’t go.” In the world of thought Herod cannot go with John but he delights in hearing him (Mk 6:20).

[4] Biblical scholars guess at the age of Herod’s daughter. One believes she is twenty on the basis of historical evidence about when this happened in Herod’s court. Mann, C.S.  Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Series (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1986) 293-298.

Another believes she is twelve on the basis of the word tō korasiō. Liz and Matthew Boulton, “The Powers that Be: Eighth Week of Pentecost,” SALT, 10 July 2018.

[5] Enexo.

[6] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969) 150.

[7] This is why Montaigne will always be a better philosopher than Descartes and a better person too.

[8] Won’t You Be My Neighbor Official Trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhwktRDG_aQ

[9] This is a paraphrase of what I could remember from the film.

Sunday, July 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Mary Carter Greene
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The Rev Mary-Carter Greene’s sermon will be available soon.

Sunday, June 24
And They Said To Jesus, “Don’t You Care?”
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
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Proper 7B – 24 June 2018

I Samuel 17:57––18:5, 10-16; Psalm 133; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

 

“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ’Peace! Be still!’”

The noise and storms in our country’s life

continued at gale force this week as we were unable to turn away

from the faces and voices of families from other countries and cultures seeking refuge from places of violence and want,

desiring a new life of productivity, safety and freedom.

Fears and passions all around about security, resources, fairness,

rule of law, basic humanity, care for the most vulnerable,

fear about “what we’ve become.”

Much of our information and emotion about these events

were carried in persistent sights and sounds: images:

 

  • a sea of crinkly, shiny blankets

which we first had always associated with space travel,

then as shoulder wraps for panting marathon runners,

and now, universally and finally,

with the shivering refugee plucked from the cold sea

or their children,

laid down to rest on the concrete floor

of a sloughed-off shell of a dead Wal-Mart.

 

  • The stunning image of an alleged adult sporting a sloppy $39 jacket designed (what a word), no doubt,

for the constantly replenished worldwide market

of sullen pre-teens:

“I really don’t care, do u?”

 

  • And the audio image (can I say that?) of fearful and panicked cries

of kids, ordinary kids in extraordinarily terrifying circumstances.

 

  • And the noise and nonsense from other alleged adults ––news anchors and panelists and politicians––

shouting over each other to define what is true

about these events and their consequences.

“Peace! Be still!”

 

What image keeps returning to you

and how does it inform

what you think about, feel about, believe about, and

if your answer to the jacket’s question is, “Well, yes, actually I do care, ” what you intend to do about this particular crisis, moment of judgment.

 

Besides all these and others,

two other small images remain with me.

 

 

  • One commentator caught the frustrating absurdity of it for me,

marveling and lamenting

the impassioned “nitpicking about the precise meaning of a ‘cage.’”

This is the level of discourse, debate and discussion

to which we’ve descended.

 

  • The second abiding image I have is also of a “designed” piece of clothing, a t-shirt.

Six years ago the very talented 31 year-old American singer, songwriter, rapper, record producer and photographer

Frank Ocean

broke the rigid rules of Hip-Hop music culture

by revealing on his Tumblr blog

that his life’s first and most significant love

had been with another man.

A commentator in that field bypassed the old predictable knee-jerk response of disavowal and prediction of a career tanking.

Instead he wrote:

“Today is a big day for hip-hop.

It is a day that will define who we really are.

How compassionate will we be?

How loving can we be?

How inclusive are we?”

 

Frank Ocean showed up at a notable summer music festival a year ago

wearing a message on a t-shirt he had designed:

Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic

when you could just be quiet?

[“Peace! Be still!”]

Someone this week suggested adding, “Why be xenophobic,

or Islamophobic … when you could just be quiet?”

 

Followers of Jesus may be called to imitate him

and to silence destructive or false clamors and claims

and to call forth some peace:

 

No, it’s simply not true

that violent crime is increasing or even significant

in immigrant populations.

No, we will not be swayed by charged terms like “infest”

or disgraceful references to groups of people being called “animals.”

 

Because, yes, we really do care.

We will speak out, witness for, and engage in hard debate

about assessing challenging situations

and struggling for polices and practices

to resolve challenges in our shared life on this planet.

 

In this case, a recent study

(from the UN, six months ago, I have the reference)

there are now an estimated 258 million people living in a country

other than their country of birth —

3.4% of the world’s inhabitants today are international migrants.

Less than two years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted

the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants,

in which Member States agreed to implement

well-managed migration policies.

They also committed to sharing more equitably

the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting

the world’s refugees, protecting the human rights of all migrants, and countering xenophobia and intolerance directed towards migrants. …

“Reliable data and evidence are critical to combat misperceptions

about migration and to inform migration policies”

 

Reliable sources of our faith and hope and just what we stand for

are critical as well:

“They took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”

No armed king or superhero, no demagogue

but the good shepherd who would one day be the gentle lamb led to slaughter. Jesus, “just as he was,” accompanies us

through every dark storm or encounter with systemic evil fueled by fear.

 

His weapon and method are a creative, healing word: “Peace! Be still!”

St. Paul’s announces this morning:

“Now is the day of salvation

Now is the acceptable time.”

For what?

To define who we really are.

To ask: “How compassionate will we be?

How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”

If Hip-Hop can do it,

maybe our citizenry, our press, and our leaders can do it.

Personal life circumstances, and the challenges facing

our city, our great nation, and the global community

are almost overwhelming.

“A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat,

so that the boat was already being swamped. …They woke him up…

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Yes, I do care.

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Get to work.

Set sail, keep rowing,

silence the storms and the demons,

and bring some peace and decency and refreshment.

 

Wednesday, June 20
“Who do you think you are?” A Pride Message from The Vine SF
Preacher: The Rev. Jude Harmon
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