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Sunday, September 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, September 20
Thursday 5:15 Evensong
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Sunday, September 16
The Tongue Is a Fire: The Truth of Grace
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3).

  1. Nothing is older or newer than grace. There was never a time before grace existed and yet, if we pay attention, grace will surprise us every day.

The Buddha warns his disciples that grasping his teaching can be like picking up a poisonous snake in the wilderness. Even well-meaning students may take hold of his words and draw the wrong conclusions. Furthermore they can be off not just by a little, but interpret them to mean the exact opposite of what he intended.[1]

The events in today’s gospel occur at a decisive moment in the center of the book and at a crossroads. Jesus and the disciples travel first through mostly Jewish territory and then through the Gentile lands on their way to Jerusalem. As hearers of this story we know who Jesus is, that at his baptism God called Jesus his beloved son. We watch the disciples learn this for themselves.

As they walk Jesus asks them “Who do people say I am?” And they respond, “John the Baptist… Elijah… one of the prophets” (Mk. 8). When he says, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers perfectly and calls him the Christ or the Anointed One. Jesus asks them to keep silent about this and goes on plainly to explain what this will mean. The Son of Man will suffer, be rejected by the chief priests and killed.

But Peter has been bitten by the proverbial Buddhist snake. He heard the teaching and knows the right words but interprets them in the opposite way. He rebukes Jesus and tries to convince him to turn aside from accepting suffering at the hands of the authorities. You might think that Jesus may be over exaggerating when he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But picture the scene. Jesus and his friends are walking the road toward Caesarea Philippi and the temple that Herod the Great constructed which Philip II dedicated it to Augustus (63 BC – 44AD) the first Roman Emperor. The Emperor’s title is “Divi Filius” or “Son of the Divine.”[2] The Gospels contrast Jesus and the emperor.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is an entirely new picture of what the word “Messiah” means. Jesus is not merely a stronger version of the dictators that we are all familiar with. He does not defeat bullying, abuse, and terror with more of the same. He does not simply replace the current king with a more powerful version. Instead Jesus subverts the whole idea that we should dedicate our lives to gaining power by manipulating and terrorizing over others.

He outlines the paradox of our existence as complex primates when he says that we will not thrive unless we deny ourselves, unless we live for something great even if it means taking up our cross. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk. 8).

  1. The other night I asked my family for examples of people we knew who had gained the world but in the process lost their lives. In the San Francisco of 2018 this is a common occurrence. Our friends, neighbors, even we ourselves have so much and yet somehow it isn’t enough.

Robert Sapolsky writes about the biology of pleasure in his book Behave. He points out that the more often our bodies are exposed to a positive stimulus, the less we experience satisfaction from it. Biologists call this habitation and it is the phenomena that, “nothing is ever as good as that first time.”

This is made more complicated because modern people have invented “pleasures far more intense than anything offered by the natural world.” This is true of food, sex, comfort, novel experiences, arresting images, vivid music, etc. He writes, “Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.”

As a result Sapolsky claims that we experience a kind of emptiness arising out of, “this combination of over-the-top non-natural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation.” Now we “barely notice the fleeting whisper of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn or the lingering glance of the right person… our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get.”[3]

 

And so I guess there is a biological sense in which, “whoever would save his life will lose it.” One can also come at this from a social perspective too. The Process Theologian Bernard Loomer (1912-1985) writes about two kinds of power.[4]

First there is what he calls unilateral power. This is all too familiar in the rhetoric of our time. It builds walls, makes threats, and deploys overwhelming force to intimidate and demean. It is a sneering “us versus them” picture of the world, which forces others to submit rather than making decisions in consultation with them. This is the way of Caesar, or the Emperor.

Loomer contrasts this with relational power. This involves working cooperatively through inclusion, empathy and listening. It means learning from people who differ from us. Relational power respects the interests and experiences of others in the way that good couples and parents do. This is the way of Jesus who sees the blessedness in the meek and the extraordinary value of peacemakers as children of God (Mk. 5).

  1. Last night the Hawaiian activist Nainoa Thompson told some stories that give me a picture of what it looks like to lose your life and end up saving it. When my wife’s grandmother was a child it became illegal to speak the Hawaiian language in school. By law teachers had the right to beat Hawaiian children for simply communicating with each other. The flourishing Hawaiian culture of the nineteenth century with its high rates of literacy and large number of Hawaiian language newspapers was devastatingly suppressed.

Nainoa Thompson said that as a result of this, “Hawaiians were conditioned to fail. The pain of failure felt so severe that it meant that you just never tried as a result.”[5]

You might remember Thor Heyerdahl’s book Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific on a Raft (1950). Heyrdahl built and sailed a raft to test his hypothesis that the Polynesian Islands were settled by people who basically just floated there from the Americas.[6] Remarkably no one in those days seemed able to believe that the ancient Hawaiians were capable of getting there themselves. In fact they were the greatest navigators in human history and had the technology to sail against prevailing winds and currents.

So in 1973 the Polynesian Voyaging Society was established to try to recover the art and technology of long-distance canoe travel along with the culture that had been lost.[7] They built the Hōkūle’a and with the help of a Micronesian teacher they sailed to Tahiti and back. I saw the picture of the Hōkūle’a’s arrival in Papeete. It seemed as if half the population greeted them on the beach. The Hawaiians realized that this was more than just a Hawaiian project.

On the second voyage a huge storm with stacked waves flipped the canoe. It could not be righted. In the thunderous gale the thirteen person crew was sitting on the top of one hull periodically getting tossed into the sea and somehow managing to crawl back up again. Eddie Aikau the heroic lifeguard who made 600 rescues at Waimea Bay set off on his surfboard to get help.

Nainoa Thompson swam out to talk to Eddie and was the last person to see or touch him before he paddled over mountains of water. The rest of the crew was miraculously rescued by helicopter in the middle of the night. With tears in his eyes Thompson describes the terrible sorrow that he saw in Eddie’s mother when they arrived at the airport.

Eddie gave his life that day for the sake of the Hōkūle’a and its crew. But since then Nainoa Thompson also has given his life for this project too. Through his father’s inspiration the demoralized voyagers decided to not give up. In 2013 the ship circumnavigated the world. Hawaiians have a new sense of pride in their heritage as wayfinders and navigators. But his mission is not just about Hawaiians. He has dedicated his whole life to also helping us to take better care of the vast Pacific Ocean and the whole earth. The sister vessel Hikianalia arrives today. You can see it at Aquatic Park.

St. Augustine talks about a life that is “incurvatus se” or curved in on itself. Instead of living like a tightly closed fist Jesus invites us to open ourselves. Today at Grace Cathedral we celebrate 169 years of just this kind of openness as a congregation. The first rector John Leonard ver Mehr (1809-1886) arrived in 1849. He worried about whether the congregation understood his preaching But most of all he cared for everyone who crossed his path not just Episcopalians. He ministered to sailors who had been convicted of mutiny and were about to be hanged on their ship. He founded schools because he cared so much about children

From that first Sunday when miners slipped an envelope of gold dust into the church collection plate to today we have been gathered as a people losing our lives with each other, for each other and for the world. We have boldly courageous heroes like Eddie Aikau and humble ones who set the world on fire with their stories like Nainoa Thompson. In this world of people who are unable to really feel because they have been saturated and numbed by pleasure we find new life in Jesus. We call it grace. God’s grace is the ship that carries us. God’s grace always surprises us.

 

#RobertSapolsky, #EddieAikau,

[1] The Buddhist story and more coms from, Liz and Matt Boulton, “Crossroads: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Seventeenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 11 September 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/11/crossroads-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-seventeenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarea_Philippi

[3] Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 69.

[4] Bruce G. Epperly, “Jesus’ Lesson in Large Hearted Theology,” The Christian Century, 14 August 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/september-16-ordinary-24b-mark-827-38

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Loomer

[5] Nainoa Thompson, “An Afternoon with Wayfinder and Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson,” lecture at Capachino High School, San Bruno, California, 15 September 2018.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kon-Tiki_expedition

[7] http://www.hokulea.com/vision-mission/

Sunday, September 9
The Audacity of Faith, The Destruction of Nature
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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The Audacity of Faith, The Destruction of Nature

“Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened”

(Mk. 7).

  1. Sometimes in an otherwise ordinary moment God just opens us. You may remember the story. I’m visiting Jeannie Taylor on Pacific Avenue. I quickly go out to re-park the car. Rushing back through her apartment door I take a few steps before I feel an odd, unsettling sensation. The furniture and art seem vaguely different. I turn to go upstairs, and there are no stairs.

A total stranger walks down the hallway toward me with a completely puzzled look on her face and her husband just behind her. Suddenly, I experience the flash of recognition. I am in the wrong apartment. Panicking I blurt out the only thing that comes to mind. “I’m the dean of Grace Cathedral!” And somehow I make two fabulous new friends.

 

The story could have turned out differently. This week a white off duty police officer returned to what she thought was her home. In her confusion she shot an extraordinary and promising twenty-six year old man named Botham Shem Jean in his own apartment. It broke my heart to hear this young man’s family talk about his character and personality.[1] Before that moment his life seemed like an incredible gift of hope. And perhaps it would have been if he had not been black. Racial fear and the sheer number of guns in our society insure that tragedies like this will keep recurring.

But imagine a different version of this story. Imagine that my new friend on Pacific Avenue has just worked a twelve-hour shift as a surgeon at UCSF Medical Center and finally has the chance to relax with her husband at their home. Suddenly unannounced at 9:30 p.m. a woman walks into her kitchen to beg her to heal her sick daughter. What would happen?[2]

Hold this feeling of discomfort, violation and danger in your heart this morning as we step into the world of the Bible.

  1. Mark writes the simplest, most immediate, most abrupt gospel we have. He does this to open us up, to shock us into recognizing God. In chapters 5 and 6 Jesus goes through Jewish territory where he heals a suffering woman (5:24-34) saying, “daughter your faith has made you well” (Mk. 5:34) and feeds 5,000 people (Mk. 6:30-52).

Then in chapters 7 (7:24ff) and 8 Jesus ventures out into the world of the gentiles. Tyre and Sidon are not just foreign places. This is hostile territory.[3] The first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus (37-100) calls the Tyrians, “the most inveterate and implacable enemies of the Jewish name and nation.”[4]

Mark’s truth is simple in theory and terribly demanding in practice. He shows us how God’s love transcends all boundaries. It is like a pebble hitting the smooth surface of a lake with energy rippling to the edges. The gifts of healing, love, forgiveness and faith that Jesus brings first to his own people become available to all creation in ever-expanding circles. We are tempted to only care for our own. God constantly invites us to open up to others.[5]

This brings us to a difficult question of interpretation. Jesus does not want anyone to know he is there but he is unable to hide (this word also means forgotten). That has turned out to be so true. Jesus cannot be hidden or forgotten. Uninvited, a Greek (not Gentile) mother from a hostile people bursts into the house asking Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, it is not fair to take the children’s bread (not food) and throw it to the dogs.” With wisdom and audacity she replies, “Lord (not “Sir” as it says in the NRSV), even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus then grants her wish, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” (Mk. 7).

The question that no preacher seems capable of leaving alone concerns Jesus’ mental state. People usually offer one of two interpretations. The first group regards this story as tremendously out of character. Jesus famously tells an approving story about “the Good Samaritan” and seems remarkably open to talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Roman Centurion and other foreigners.

So these interpreters can imagine Jesus saying this perhaps with a twinkle in his eye or in a sardonic way. He knows that God’s love is for all people and he is allowing the Syro-Phoenician woman to make this important point. When it comes to God there is enough for all.

The second group regards Jesus as blinded by the conventional thinking of his culture and time. The Bible has a long tradition of prophets like Abraham (Gen. 18:16-33) and Moses (Ex. 32:14) arguing with God and even changing God’s mind. We cannot imagine a human being who does not evolve and learn. Jesus does this too.

Where do I stand in this perennial debate? Mark is open to both interpretations. We don’t know Jesus’ tone of voice or details that would make the meaning of this encounter clear. And for that reason, I don’t think Jesus’ attitude is what this story is principally about.

To me what matters most is that this story offers us a different definition, a biblical definition, of faith. And it is different than the way we use the word in everyday life. The spotlight of the story should be on the woman. For her faith is not defined as certainty (as opposed to doubt). Instead she shows that real faith is audacious. It is courage (rather than irresoluteness).[6]

In short she shatters rules of decorum with a shocking action that even today could get you shot. She is with James who writes, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you” (Jas. 2)? Faith is living, active and surprising. It always opens us up more – to God and to others.

And that is the greatest challenge of our time, isn’t it? If you wanted to sum up the spirit of our age, you would say that we are closed off. We are closed off from each other by politics, media exposure, geography, race, religion, social class, etc. We are so closed off that we are shooting each other. So this morning I ask what are you closed off from? How is God trying to open you up?

Perhaps I am stating the obvious but we as a people are closed off from the natural world. Scholars say we are entering a new geological era called the Anthropocene as human beings alter the environment for every other being on the planet.[7]

In the year I was born Davis, California had 45 days that were 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above. According to the climate model recently published by the New York Times the year my daughter turns 80 there will be 85 days above 90 degrees. According to one estimate it could be ninety degrees or above for 30 percent of the year. In short, Davis will have the climate of Palm Springs.[8]

Again faith is not some magical form of certainty, it is bold action. These enormous oak tree columns, the earth superimposed on our rose window, the images of breaking ocean waves in the north transept, these were created for you – to open you up. What can you do? You can participate with the governor, lieutenant governor, interfaith leaders in the service of wondering this Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. You can attend the events around the Global Climate Action Summit this week here at the Cathedral. We are going to roll out a carbon-tracking app for you and our whole community. You can volunteer here to do something about this.

 

In this year of truth we invited the neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky to be our St. Francis Day Forum guest and preacher. In his memoir he describes his childhood dream of joining the gorillas in a diorama at the New York Natural History museum. Instead he ended up joining a baboon troop as a researcher in East Africa at age 21. He gave them Old Testament names, he noted their every social connection. When the time came he even risked his life to save one who he had accidentally endangered.

At the end of his book he describes how unscrupulous neighbors began selling meat tainted with tuberculosis to a nearby tourist resort. He saw that the baboons foraging in their trash were dying. He tried nearly everything he could to stop them, but ultimately he failed.

He writes that as a young man, “I had an infinity of love to expend on a troop of baboons.”[9] Sapolsky does not believe in God, but he sees that these beings deserve his prayers. He writes, “I still have not found a Prayer for the Dead for the baboons… In a world filled with so many words of lamentation, no words have come to me.” Something opened his heart to those beings. With the Syro-Phoenician woman he shares an audacious generosity in reaching beyond the boundaries that most others accept.

Ultimately, though I do believe in God and this changes everything. In 1935 after the death of his nine year old son the composer Herbert Howells wrote the music for a hymn that describes my experience in the face of hopelessness and grief.

It is Hymn 665 and it goes like this, “All my hope on God is founded; he doth still my trust renew, me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true, God unknown, he alone calls my heart to be his own.”

We are still in the world of the Bible. Jesus cannot be hidden or forgotten. His energy continues to ripple through the universe. We are not working on this alone. We also have others. And sometimes in an otherwise ordinary moment God just opens us.

[1] Matthew Haag, “Dallas Police Officer Kills Her Neighbor in His Apartment, Saying She Mistook It for Her Own,” The New York Times, 7 September 2018.

[2] To complicate things imagine that the doctor and her husband grew up in Vietnam and the woman is from a white California family. What would you expect the doctor to say?

[3] This section and the material including the two interpretations of Jesus and so much else in here comes from Liz and Matt Boulton’s SALT Commentary for 16 Pentecost, 4 September 2018.

http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/4/be-opened-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-sixteenth-week-after-pentecost

[4] The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, Chapter 9, tr. George Henry Maynard. “The royal Psalmist reckons the Tyrians among the most inveterate and implacable enemies of the Jewish name and nation.”

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=evans;cc=evans;rgn=div3;view=text;idno=N18799.0001.001;node=N18799.0001.001%3A99.1.9

[5] The American Puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote a book called The Nature of True Virtue. Ultimately human beings can only be good in what he calls private systems. We are good and someone within our group is obligated to look after us. God alone is capable of true virtue, of real disinterested love that is not bounded by personal identity.

[6] Again, grateful for this insight to Liz and Matt Boulton’s SALT Commentary for 16 Pentecost, 4 September 2018.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene

[8] I calculated the 30% by taking the highest number of days in the range as the basis for my estimate. Nadja Popovich, Blacki Migliozzi, Rumsey Taylor, Josh Williams and Derek Watkins, “How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?” The New York Times, 30 August 2018.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/30/climate/how-much-hotter-is-your-hometown.html

[9] Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001) 303, 301.

Past Sermons

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

Thursday, May 3
The First Gentile Christian
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord.” (Acts. 11).

What does it take for a Bible passage to really come alive for us? So much of what we hear every day fails to really penetrate our hearts. Often it is even more difficult to imagine someone like Peter or Cornelius as a real person caught up in the tragedy of real life.

This morning I received a voicemail message from a very old friend named Janet. We first met in church and I’ve known her for maybe thirty years. We studied the Bible together and shared our lives. In fact, for a while, I was even the executor of Janet’s estate. Her voice was so full of pain. She felt embarrassed that people are laughing about the Episcopal Church because of last week’s Beyoncé service. She said, “How could you do this in that beautiful Cathedral?”

The writer Rebecca Solnit points out that we use the word “lost” in two disparate ways. On the one hand we all have the experience of losing our keys, a homework assignment, a book or an article of clothing. When this happens we still know where we are. Everything is familiar except that one element.

But then there is the experience of losing oneself. You may have been lost in the woods or a strange city. Solnit describes this as the moment when the world becomes larger than our knowledge of it.[1] In both the ways that we use the word “lost” the striking feeling involves a loss of control.

This was how Janet sounded in her message. It is the way that “the circumcised believers criticized” Peter when they said, “Why did you go to uncircumscribed men and eat with them” (Acts 11)? Religious rules of the time did not permit faithful Jewish men to share meals with outsiders. I can imagine Peter’s discomfort in this confrontation.

Change is difficult for all of us, for Janet and me, for Peter and his friends. Peter offers two responses one from a dream in which he met God and the other from his personal experience.

Peter was praying when he had a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven with different kinds of animals on it. A voice told him to eat and he refused because according to his faith these animals were unclean. God told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The Spirit then told Peter to go with some non-Jewish people who appeared and “not to make a distinction between them and us.” When he arrived at their house he began to speak. He describes it to his angry friends, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us in the beginning.” Finally to his questioners Peter says, “If then God gave them the same spirit that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

At Grace Cathedral these days we too have a dream. It comes from a deep desire to reach out into the world, to allow God to draw us into new relationships with others. In the same spirit as Peter, we want to meet new people and to hear what God is saying to them. Although this may at times leave us feeling lost, we do not always have to be the ones in control. God is in charge. God will always draw us into a world that is larger than our knowledge of it.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (NY: Penguin, 2005) 22-3.

Sunday, April 29
Truth about Fear
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… We love because he loved us first” (1 Jn. 4).

What does it mean to say that perfect love casts out fear?

Over a hundred years ago G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote, “There are some people – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy…”

“We think for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.”[1]

All these years later I think that the most striking thing for Chesterton about our implied individual and collective philosophy would be our fear. On the one hand we live in one of the safest, healthiest and wealthiest societies in all history, and at the same time we are obsessed by unlikely threats and a false sense of scarcity.

In the last presidential election unemployment was at 5%, there had been six years of steady economic progress, our country was developing the technologies of the future, and our military power was unrivalled. And yet many Americans seemed irrationally afraid – of immigrants, terrorists, people of color, government officials, etc.

In these early days of the vast social experiment which we call the Internet, sometimes it seems like people just want to be offended and angry. Fear generates fear and since then we have become even more afraid. We worry about the viability of our democracy itself, environmental degradation, trade wars and actual wars.

Sasha Abramsky my forum guest today points out that our smartphones are “changing our physiology” through stress. He also claims that we are afraid of the wrong things. We worry about Ebola, terrorists, plane crashes, violent immigrants, when we should be worrying about traffic. In ten years 400,000 vehicular passengers and another 45,000 pedestrians were killed on American roads. In 2015 thirty-eight thousand people were killed by cars in the US, an increase of 8 percent probably the result of distracted driving.[2]

Fear makes Americans more dangerous. It leads to policies like the “Stand Your Ground” laws, mass incarceration, overzealous policing, the legitimation of torture and reckless foreign interventions. Because tens of millions of Americans believe they need guns to protect themselves we live with higher rates of suicide and accidental death. In 2014 Gun War News reported that for every American soldier killed in Afghanistan over the previous eleven years, thirteen American children had died from being shot.[3]

  1. This morning we have two readings that particularly address the universal human challenge of overcoming fear. John dedicates a large portion of his Gospel to what scholars call “The Farewell Discourse.” At his last meal Jesus washes the feet of his friends. He inaugurates the tradition of a holy meal that we will experience this morning. He tells his friends what is about to happen, that he will be betrayed and delivered to the authorities and humiliated.[4]

You might imagine how horrifying this would sound to someone who had given up everything to follow Jesus. They loved him and believed so deeply in his message. They couldn’t help but think that his disgrace would be theirs too. You can almost imagine the desperation and fear Thomas feels when he says, “How can we know the way.” So Jesus explains. He’s not delivering a social science lecture. He is trying to comfort his friends.

In the Gospel of John Jesus offers seven “I Am” statements to help us to understand God. He says, “I am the bread of life… the light of the world… the door… the Good Shepherd… the resurrection… the way, the truth and the life…” Finally, Jesus gets to the last image that he hopes. Each of these pictures has been leading to this.

Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my father is the farmer” (Jn. 15). The scriptures often used this image of God as the farmer and the people of Israel as a kind of grapevine. In those contexts God condemns the whole nation for bearing poor fruit and threatens to uproot the vines. Jeremiah complains about the bitterness of this fruit and God’s righteousness in destroying it (2:21).[5]

But in this context with his very dear friends, Jesus is not so much threatening them with death, as a consequence of choosing to be cut off (as I imagine some might read this passage). Instead he says, “You have already been cleansed (or pruned) by the word I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15). He is promising a whole new kind of intimacy and connection. He is saying, “Don’t be afraid, we will always be together. Your life and all of its fruits will be signs of our ongoing intimacy. I will be with you and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side but in the days to come, I will live in you.”[6]

  1. The second reading comes from the First Letter of John. The Biblical scholar Ray Brown believes that this letter was written during a time of struggle within the early Christian community by a person who was concerned about Gnosticism. John wrote this epistle in the face of a religious movement that emphasized secret knowledge about a war between spirit and the physical world.[7]

For John faith is public and visible. Over and over he repeats his conviction that belief and knowledge are always secondary to love. Or to put it more accurately, we recognize the truth by the fruit it bears. Especially when Christians disagree we have to always keep this message in mind.

John writes that, “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn. 4).

John encourages us to show our faithfulness to God through our kindness to each other. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 Jn. 4).

This week again the news has been full of reminders about the severity of racial injustice in America where unarmed African Americans are five times as likely to be killed by police as white people.[8] You may have read about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to people who were terrorized by the lynching of African Americans.[9] Perhaps you heard about the African American women golfers who were playing at their own club when the police were called to escort them off the grounds.[10] You could have seen the video of Desmond Marrow a former NFL player who was thrown to the ground and choked by police officers in Atlanta, Georgia.[11]

We have reached a horrible place in our society when significant numbers of people believe that calling the police puts African American people at risk of being humiliated or killed.

In the film I Am not Your Negro, we hear the writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) reminiscences of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if you have ever had a friend who was murdered, but it makes a difference in how the world looks to you. Despite this Baldwin can say, “I refuse to hate you. In fact you and I are one. The great lie is that we are two people. I’m your cousin. I can’t hate you because we’re family.”[12]

So much about fear is mysterious. What feels terrifying to me could seem totally irrational to you, in fact it could be even exhilarating to you. Chapman University charts American’s top fears every year.[13] You can see the trends. Fear is a social phenomenon.

When I first arrived at Grace Cathedral riding my bicycle down California Street seemed terrifying. Like an old style roller coaster you come up to Jones from the Taylor Street steps with the wind howling over the top of Nob Hill. Then you launch yourself downhill. Car doors swing open. Uber drivers pass you within inches as you go almost thirty miles per hour trying to avoid cable cars and their accident-causing rails.

It’s dangerous because you are exposed. You have a different kind of vehicle and so the people around you don’t understand (maybe that makes it a little bit like other ways of being different in our society). Over these years I have come to love what I previously feared. Now I see that every day in that place is wonderfully different and I’m filled with joy. I’m enjoying the ride more than the destination.

I began with the idea that your philosophy of life matters to hundreds of small and large decisions in our life. The life of faith is like riding down that hill. To others we might seem vulnerable and a little reckless, as too quick to forgive. We look more exposed to suffering because of our commitment to love. But we have something that cannot be seen. We are part of the true vine. Jesus lives through us. God’s fruits are being born in us. We experience the love that casts out fear.

Let us pray: May all that is unforgiven in us / Be released. / May our fears yield / Their deepest tranquilities. // May all that is unlived in us / Blossom into a future / Graced with love.[14]

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics quoted in William James, Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) 9.

[2] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] The discussion below comes from Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[5] Herman C. Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 225-352.

[6]Liz and Matt Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT Commentary for Easter 5,” Salt, April 2018. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

[7] Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Epistles of John, Volume 30 (NY: Doubleday, 1982).

[8] Sasha Abramsky, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream (NY: Nation Books, 2017) 146, 159-60.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/04/26/the-lynching-memorial-ends-our-national-silence-on-racial-terrorism/?utm_term=.863fff961c74&wpisrc=nl_popns&wpmm=1 and https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/24/white-golf-course-owners-said-five-african-american-women-were-playing-too-slow-then-they-called-the-police/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f113bf7ddaf6

[11] http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/state/georgia/article209961214.html

[12] Donald Schell conversation 25 April 2018.

[13] https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/

[14] John O’ Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (NY: Doubleday, 2008) 97.

Wednesday, April 25
Beyoncé Mass Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Professor of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary
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Sunday, April 22
The Still Waters of Psalm 23 and Beyoncé
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me…” (Ps. 23).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Anselm, Proslogion.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darren’s theme – The Earth as a Temple

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

Sunday, April 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.

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