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Sunday, January 13
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, January 17
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, January 13
Seeking Reality
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Seeking Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Sermons

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

Sunday, November 1
Teach them Gratitude
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"See I am making all things new" (Rev. 21). "Unbind him and let him go" (Jn. 11). "Let us be glad and rejoice" (Isa. 25).
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The recording can be found at the bottom of the page.

“See I am making all things new” (Rev. 21). “Unbind him and let him go” (Jn. 11). “Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25).

What does God want for you and for the children we baptize today? What stands in our way, how are we constrained or bound up, unable to be free?

My friend the Bible scholar Herman Waetjen has a wonderful interpretation of that moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [1] After Lazarus has been in the grave for four days, after he has been brought back to life, he still needs help from the community of people who care for him. He needs to be unbound. At many points in our life we do too.

For me religion is not so much about dogma or doctrine. It is not a requirement to think or believe certain things. It does not oblige you to feel sorry for what you have done in the past, nor is it mostly a promise to make better choices in the future. Instead, at its very heart, faith frees us. It is a gropu of people who help each other to become unbound. This happens in the experience of thankfulness to the Holy One, to the power which brings us into being and sustains us in love.

Religion at its best gives us both a direction to be thankful and practice in cultivating gratitude. In this way faith helps make it possible to receive the gifts that otherwise might be invisible to us.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saint’s. We give thanks for all the people who came before us, for those who personally nurtured and sheltered us spiritually. We even bless God for those forgotten people who wrote scriptures, created art and built sacred spaces like this so that we would know God. We bless those who in their lives and words preserved the knowledge of God that enriches us.

So the short answer to my first question is that God wants us to be happy. Strangely enough we lay claim to this in our gratitude. I am not alone in this conviction.

Six years ago I first met Christine Carter a sociologist at UC Berkeley. [2] She taught me that for decades social scientists studied individual and social problems like mental illness and persistent poverty. For years they were so dedicated to solving questions about how to heal suffering that they did not ask about what conditions make people thrive. Then they realized that not suffering is different than being happy. And so less than twenty years ago they began studying the causes of human happiness.

This research led them to the conclusion that less than half of our happiness comes from our individual genetic predisposition. In other words the the choices we make have a huge influence on our sense of satisfaction and joy. We can establish habits that bring out our better selves. We can live the stories that give meaning and help us to make the world better.

Christine claims that happiness is not an emotion but a skill that we can learn. Happiness is not something that simply happens to us when we are lucky. It is more like a muscle that we keep strong through exercise. It is a learned behavior, that arises out of habits we decide to cultivate.

The practice of gratitude – to family, strangers and God – lies at the heart of happiness. I do not know how she measures these things but Christine claims that people actively practicing gratitude feel better than others. They are 20% happier. They exercise more, sleep better, and are more likeable. They are more supportive, attentive, persistent, stronger, and socially intelligent. They have a higher sense of self worth.

Christine has very practical suggestions for how to cultivate gratitude. For instance, she says that having meals together as a family is more important than reading to your child. If you are a single person, look for ways to break bread with other people, maybe even those who you meet here. Over meals we weave the stories that make sense of our lives. These can be gripes about minor ways that others have inadvertently offended us or life giving accounts about how God continues to bless us.

For entirely secular reasons Christine recommends that people say grace together before meals. Our brains are giant filters of the world and saying out loud what we are thankful for helps us to attend to blessings that we might easily overlook. When we thank God our blessings become more real to us.

We live in a crazy time and place. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped in the abundance paradox. That is when the more you have, the more disappointment you feel when you don’t get what you want. In many respects gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. It leads to the kind of compassion that social scientists say is so close to happiness that your body reacts to it in almost exactly the same way.

Even more important, gratitude is the way we live in the presence and reality of God. I’m new here and received very stern instructions that with all the baptisms I should preach for only half as long as I usually do.

But before closing I want to tell you about my favorite film. It is called Here and Now. The trailer says, “The average wave lasts six seconds. The rest of the day is spent getting there. This is that day.” The producer Taylor Steele enlisted more than 25 surfers and photographers to record a single twenty-four hour period on May 2, 2012. In hundreds of of seconds long clips we see the surfers sleeping, waking, eating, training, making music, laughing with friends in places around the world.

Two of them arrive by boat at a remore location on the south shore of Maui to find almost no waves but good fishing. Others compete in a Southern California contest. Another surfs barreling, left-breaking waves alone just beyond the woods in British Columbia. I love the idea that at every moment somewhere someone is riding a wave.

It took me a long time to realize it but surfing is not even about the waves. [3] On one day it might be a line of pelicans coming through the fog, or the light on the water at dawn or a dolphin in the coolness of the water at the beginning of a hot summer day, or the way a million rain drops can seem suspended above the ocean in the semi-darkness of a December day.

People ask me if I write sermons out there. I don’t. All I think about is getting into position for the next wave. The most important thing in surfing is the present moment. It is being able to see and receive the gift that God is giving you right then. It is the practice of gratitude that opens the door to the mystery of our being.

I want to conclude with a quote from the theologian Kallistos Ware. He says, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” [4]

“Let us be glad and rejoice” (Isa. 25)!

[1] “Lazarus has responded to Jesus’ bellowing summons, “Come forth.” But in order to be free he needs the gracious aid and helping hand of those around him. Jesus’ liberation from the death of the living and the death of the dying requires a two-fold response: the act of Lazarus himself to hear and exit, but also the caring involvement of his community.” Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 283.

[2] Christine Carter, “Raising Happiness,” Lecture at Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, California, 20 October 2009.

[3] I learned from Mike Lawler that surfing is not just about the physical act of riding waves. It is about history, culture, music, science, meteorology, art and style that surfers pass down between the generations.

[4] Cited in Donald Schell, “Treasures New and Old, Tradition and Gospel-Making: Reflections on Principles Learned at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and How These Principles Might Apply in Other Contexts,” Forthcoming lecture at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, November 2015, 8.

Sunday, October 25
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Randal Gardner
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Sermon from Sunday’s 11 a.m. Eucharist.

Sunday, September 13
Take Up Your Cross
Preacher: The Rev. Tyrone Fowlkes
Sermon from Sunday's 6pm Service
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