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Celebrate the bicentennial of Walt Whitman, one of America’s most significant and influential poets

Singing Whitman In His 200th Year

Friday, October 18

Celebrate the bicentennial of Walt Whitman, one of America’s most significant and influential poets

Move, groove and jam in an interactive one-hour workshop guided by the professional teaching artists of Alonzo King LINES Ballet

LINES Ballet Family Workshops

Saturday, October 19

Move, groove and jam in an interactive one-hour workshop guided by the professional teaching artists of Alonzo King LINE...

Celebrate the Cathedral School for Boys during the 11 am service.

Cathedral School for Boys Sunday

Sunday, October 20

Celebrate the Cathedral School for Boys during the 11 am service.

Gather to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh

Tree of Life Interfaith Evensong

Sunday, October 27

Gather to commemorate the first anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh

The British a cappella octet making its San Francisco debut

VOCES8 in Concert

Monday, November 4

The British a cappella octet making its San Francisco debut

Join the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations for an afternoon of reflection, music and interfaith collaboration

Spirituality and Justice Initiative

Wednesday, November 13

Join the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations for an afternoon of reflection, music and interfaith collaboration

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, October 13
Why Worship?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17).

  1. Why is it important to go to church? Why do we worship God? We know the answer to this question in an instinctual and subconscious way. But if we are going to talk to anyone about what really matters to us we need to put this into words.

We should be able to talk about why faith matters today as Turkish forces kill our former allies in Northern Syria, as the branches of federal government war against each other, as rolling power outages somehow surprise us into remembering that humans are altering the climate in every place on the planet. Jesus in the Gospel of Luke says a great deal about faith.

In today’s Gospel Jesus travels the last part of his journey to Jerusalem. At the beginning of this trip Jesus and his friends were refused hospitality in a Samaritan village (Lk. 9:51-56). In their humiliation and anger the disciples said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus reprimands them. Obviously they have a long way to go. Worship is not about setting apart good people like us from bad people like them.

Jesus got into trouble in his hometown when he said this at the beginning of his public ministry. That day in the synagogue Jesus alluded to a story about how the prophet Elijah healed Naaman, a foreign general suffering from leprosy. The crowd became so angry that they tried to kill him (Lk. 4). For Jesus worship and faith are not primarily about national or religious identity.

Jesus is clear about this and frequently refers in positive terms to the people his wn nation regard as the enemy – the Samaritans. Who are the Samaritans? They are the northern people who are descendants of intermarriage between Jews who were left behind after elites were exiled in Babylon and the conquering Assyrian invaders. Samaritans shared a similar culture and even some overlapping scripture but worship in a different temple. Although the Samaritans and Jews seem to share so much, the two peoples regarded each other as enemies.[1]

The comedian Trevor Noah in his autobiography Born a Crime points out how our worst conflicts are not with people who we see as completely different from us. We have our most bitter disagreements with people who are somewhat similar but who we perceive as having somehow betrayed our basic principles. This dynamic characterized the situation when Anglicans in Africa condemned the American church for embracing LGBTQ people ten years ago. Our similarities made it a hotter conflict than if we had been completely different.

  1. In the Gospel of Luke As Jesus passes through the borderland between Samaria and Galilee, between his ministry in the countryside and the temple, ten lepers come to meet him. Keeping with the normal practice these outcasts stop at a distance from Jesus and lifting up their voices they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk. 17). Jesus tells them to go to the temple and present themselves to the priest. As they go they are healed. Nine of them go on but one audacious Samaritan who has been ostracized and cast out does something remarkable. He praises God, comes right up to Jesus, throws himself on the ground and thanks him.

Before we go further I want to point out something that is easy to miss. This language of turning and praising God comes up at important points in the Gospel of Luke as an indicator of faith. At the birth of Jesus, after meeting the holy family, the shepherds “returned glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20). Then at the very end of the Gospel the disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk. 24).

This turning and praising God are also what set this foreigner apart. Jesus points out that the others did not return and give praise to God. Jesus seems moved by this courageous Samaritan. He says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17).

All ten lepers heard Jesus’ instructions. They trusted him and obeyed. But faith is more than hearing, trusting, obeying or even receiving God’s healing. It has something to do with returning and praising God.

  1. Many of us have memorized the summary of faith. We call it the Great Commandment and inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters (Deut. 6:5ff). It has two dimensions. The first is, “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 the second dimension is that we are to love our neighbor as we love our selves (Lk. 10:27).

When a young lawyer asks Jesus what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. You remember it. A man is beaten nearly to death by thieves and left by the roadside. His people’s religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road. But the one who his people regard as an enemy, a Samaritan, picks him up and nurses him back to health. A neighbor is one who risks crossing social boundaries to help. In this way Jesus explains the second dimension of the Great Commandment.

If the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ explanation of the second dimension, this story of the Thankful Samaritan is his answer to the first dimension of loving God. We probably hear about the Good Samaritan more often because we live in a society that at some level recognizes the importance of helping our neighbor even if we mostly fail to do it. In modern San Francisco there are plenty of people who would encourage us to be merciful or kind to our neighbor, but far fewer who see why worship, gratitude or praise for God matter.

Many don’t believe in God. They might say that God does not need our prayers. So why do we worship? Why should we return and praise God? For many years psychologists mostly studied various forms of illness. About twenty years ago psychologists like Dacher Keltner in Berekeley began studying happiness more closely.[2] One of their primary conclusions is that happiness and gratitude are intimately connected. In some senses we were created to give thanks. It is our nature to glorify God if you will.

My friend Matt Boulton explains it this way.[3] Imagine a child receiving a meal as a gift prepared by her parents. She might consume it simply as fuel, or take it for granted as a privilege. It might be a matter chiefly of sensual pleasure for her. It might be all of this at once. But if that is it, she has missed something essential. She has not received the gift. She does not understand what really happened.

It is only when she recognizes the meal as a gift and thanks her parents for it, that it becomes what it really is – a blessing for her. Her thanks is part of receiving the gift and understanding their love. It completes the gift, it makes the gift what it really is. Matt says that, “gratitude is the natural echo of grace.”

And that is why we worship. We have received our existence as a gift and it becomes more complete in our recognition of this truth, in returning and praising God. The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that keeping the Sabbath day, honoring God in church has two benefits.[4]

First, it allows us to be free from our selves, to rejoice and be in God. If you work a hundred hours a week at Facebook Mark Zuckerberg in effect becomes your god. If you work for yourself you make yourself a kind of god. The Sabbath reminds us that we cannot trust in our own powers but only in the God who is for us. Church helps us know ourselves not in what we do, but through our faith in God.

Second, keeping a holy day, participating in church makes us free for God. It gives us a chance to hear God’s Word and understand what it means for us. Martin Luther writes that the Word of God is a sanctuary above all sanctuaries. Through it Jesus shows us that we are God’s beloved children.

Barth points out that some people say that they find God on the golf course, in nature, a museum, reading a good book or attending the symphony. But all of these are forms of escape. When you come to church you are not merely a passive listener. You become part of this community that God has gathered. Look around you. You didn’t choose these people. God did. Coming here you make yourself open not just to God but to unpredictable contact with others. This experience of worship will change who you are all week long.

Yesterday we had the funeral for Dr. Ron Johnson who has exemplified this ideal of joy and worship and community more than almost anyone. He was the gate of love through which many of us arrived here and the gate of compassion for countless people who died of AIDS. A few weeks ago I saw him. He radiated joy from his deathbed. He said he felt ready to be with God. Deeper than word in his smile I dropped into a mystical understanding of how much Dr. J loves us.

Why do we go to church? We know the answer to this question. At some level we understand the lesson of both the Good Samaritan and the Thankful Samaritan. We come here because living is more than breathing and eating and being respected by others. We come here because we depend on God’s love, because we long to experience the joy of being fully alive. We were made for gratitude. The gift of our life becomes more complete when we rejoice and thank our creator for it. So let us turn and praise God.

 

[1] A great deal of this sermon comes from Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/10/8/thanking-is-believing-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eighteenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (NY: Norton, 2009).

[3] Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4: The Doctrine of Creation tr. A.T. Mckay, T.H.L. Parker, H Knight, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T & T Clark, 1961) 47-72.

Sunday, October 6
Francis and the Dream of Chivalry
Preacher: Brother Desmond Alban
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‘Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born King of all Britain.’

 I am very grateful to have been invited back to Grace Cathedral this morning just a day after a celebration here of the 100th Anniversary of Franciscan friars in the Episcopal Church.  But why, on this St Francis Sunday, am I opening, not with the scripture, or a quotation from Saintt Francis, or from our own founder Father Joseph, but with a snippet of British folklore?

I was probably about 10 or 11 years old when TH White’s story of Britain’s mythical Once and Future King became my favorite childhood book.  That my middle name, Arthur, was shared by its hero added to the magic.  About the same time, a slim volume of prayers passed on to me by my lay preacher father, introduced me to the magnetic attraction of Saint Francis of Assisi.  This was also, roughly, the close of an era in my life when my otherwise positive school report cards tended to lament a propensity for daydreaming.   

There is a lot more to Francis than birdbaths, animal stories and the words of a beautiful Peace Prayer which, though true to his spirit, he certainly didn’t write.  It is a shame that some of the things he actually did say or write are not better known.    But one remarkable discovery for me as I began to learn more of the lesser-known Francis, was that he and I shared a common subject matter for our childhood dreaming! We both loved the world of true-born kings, knights, minstrels, heralds and heroic quests.  The writings of Francis bear direct witness at certain points to the inspiration he found in the legend of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as do his early biographers.  Francis’ life reminds us that God can speak to us in our dreams and visions, both literal and metaphorical.  But it reminds us too of the power of the Gospel to transform and rework those dreams in ways that we might never imagine.

A statue of St Francis outside his basilica in Assisi can rather surprise the casual pilgrim.  It does not portray him as the famous, charismatic friar.  Nor is this the fashionably well-dressed youth who was the heart and soul of the of parties of his age-group and social class.  And this is not the young warrior who once set out proudly from Assisi with the best armor and attire that money could buy.  That had happened in Italy in 1204 or 5, not of course in the England of the 1970s, and the dream of actually becoming a knight was for him a credible one.  Francis set out to join the forces of Count Gentile of Manipullo, fighting for the noble cause of the Pope against the Emperor, and it was actually feasible that if he had acquitted himself well he might have been made a knight by the Count, right there on the field of battle.   In a sign, however, of the traits that had always been present in the character of this young man, when he had found an actual knight, but one shabbily and shoddily equipped, Francis had given away his own armor and finery.  Subsequently in two night-time dreams in the city of Spoleto, Francis had received, first, what he thought was a glorious confirmation of all that he had dreamed of ever since he learned the French ballads that told these tales of chivalry: a dream of Francis himself, feasting in a fine castle with knights that were somehow his knights.  But the second dream challenged him to a radical reinterpretation of what that glory and call really was, a challenge to let go of all that he thought was his deepest desire and hope for his future.  The statue depicts Francis returning to Assisi having never reached the battlefield, slumped over on his horse, lacking the finery with which he had set out, returning covered not with glory but with confusion and bewilderment, engaged in a process of  radical disillusionment, the literal loss of an illusion that had been cheered by his family and friends as he had set out earlier.

That was just one of a series of incidents that turned Francis’ life upside down.  But through them all, he began to realize that the fashionable ideal of knightly chivalry that had gripped the wealthy young men of Europe was a poor shadow of a far greater spiritual reality.  According to the modern Franciscan author, Brother Mark of Whitstable, Francis ‘re-invented the ideal of chivalry through a kind of inversion’.  Feudal pride was subsumed by the ideal of humility.  Knightly quests were replaced by long and hazardous journeys across Europe preaching the gospel.  The sword was displaced by a message of peace and reconciliation. And the very status of knighthood itself gave way to Francis and his brothers calling themselves the Friars Minor or Lesser Brothers, identifying themselves firmly with the underclass, the minore of medieval Italy.  Unlike the rich young man in our Gospel, who turned away from the call of Jesus with such sadness, the rich young man of Assisi found perfect joy in giving away everything to live in the freedom of the gospel.

Now part of the attraction of the legend of King Arthur, for me as for Francis, was the fellowship of the Round Table, the wonderful solidarity of those brothers in arms, celebrating the heroic deeds of each and all, holding one another in mutual honor and respect.  But what a limited fraternity, not least in the restricted, gendered sense of that term!  In English at least, it is very difficult to find a truly inclusive term for a concept like Fraternity or Sorority.   By the end of his life Francis’ vision of who, or what was his Sister or Brother had expanded to include… everything.  Not just those close to him or sharing a faith with him.  Not just human beings.  Not even just animals.  It is appropriate that we honor the Christ-light in animals by bringing them to Church today for a blessing, but not only because there are some cute stories about Saint Francis and the animals.  For some years as a Brother I had on my wall poster that had been issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, portraying a kind of evolutionary family tree linking the whole variety of animal and plant life.   It became the subject of contemplative reflection for me.  I believe Saint Francis would have loved the theory of Evolution, once he’d got over the shock of it.  All living things really are, in effect, sisters and brothers.  My own scientific field was not biology – I used to teach High School Physics and Astronomy – but many who have followed Francis, especially those writing today, have explored our connection, our common origins, not only with all living things but in stars and galaxies as well as the connectedness of the tiniest particles in the quantum behavior of matter itself.  Francis himself, writing in the last years of his life recognized not only living things as his sisters and brothers but also Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Water, Brother Fire, even Sister Death.  His great poem – the first to be written in vernacular Italian – is best known in English as the hymn All Creatures of our God and King.  The relevance to our present world crisis needs no further exposition.

But loving Christ in the whole created order is sometimes easier than loving other people! That is why I also want to highlight one other incident in the life of Francis, one that took place a few years before the end of his life, and one that is again highly relevant to the social and political currents of our present culture.

One truly terrible consequence, in part perhaps, of the idolization of chivalry in the time of Francis, was the appalling ideology of the Christian Crusades.  But these terrible events provided the context for one of the most significant quests of Francis’ transformed chivalry – and one that illustrates how having your dreams challenged and reformed, is not something that happens just once, but is rather an ongoing process.

When Francis arrived in a Crusader Camp in Egypt in 1219, he did not do so, like the Cardinal Pelagius who was also there, to urge the soldiers on against the Muslim enemy.  He was done with holy war!  Crossing the front lines with a companion, at enormous jeopardy to both of them, his mission rather was to seek an audience with Sultan Malik Al Kamil.  Now actually, I don’t believe that when he set out Francis was motivated, 800 years ahead of our time, by some progressive vision of interfaith dialogue.  But that is partly what makes what happened next so remarkable.  His dreams had, indeed, already changed at least once.  He no longer had a vision of military glory, fighting for the forces of God against the powers of darkness.  But I do believe that the dream with which he set out to Damietta was not the same as the vision with which he returned.  On setting out, either of two outcomes would have been OK for Francis.  The best, his first intention, would have been the conversion of the Sultan and his people.  The crusades would surely end when everyone had become Christian!  The second, a very real possibility, and one fulfilled in some of his brothers in Morocco the following year, would have been the spiritual glory of a martyr’s death.  But the Sultan was not converted.  And Francis was not martyred.  From the perspective of those dreams, the quest was a failure.

The historically attested story of the Sultan and the Saint was told in a 2016 film, screened last year on PBS and produced by the Unity Productions Foundation, a team of American Muslim scholars with those from other faith backgrounds.  It describes how the Sultan allowed Francis to preach freely, and how the two spent some days together.  One of those who speak in the film is Franciscan friar and historian Michael Cusato, who comments, ‘I believe… watching Muslims pray, men and women, five times daily… really struck Francis unexpectedly. I believe it profoundly moved him.’  Sister Kathleen Warren adds, ‘The respect they had for each other spoke volumes to Francis that this, indeed, was not an enemy, this was not a beast, but this was truly a brother.’

The siege, tragically, and to the disgust of Francis, continued after the meeting between the two men, with the Crusaders wiping out 80,000 people in Damietta, and the Sultan forced to retreat.  The balance of power was dramatically reversed later when the Crusaders found themselves bogged down in flood waters and mud, surrounded and starving.  The Sultan could have let them die, or sent his soldiers in for an easy kill, but instead he sent his enemies food, and feed for their animals.  Many lives were saved and both sides returned home.  What we know as the love and mercy of God revealed in Christ was not confined to just one of the men in this encounter.

I mentioned earlier that there are prayers and devotions written by Francis which are not well known.  I thought it beautiful when I realized that some of those prayers, and some of the particular devotions practiced by Franciscans and later by other Western Christians, show the clear possibility that they were influenced and inspired by the devotions and practices of Muslims observed by Francis in Egypt.

At a time when so many leaders in our public life seek to make political capital by stirring up our fears of those who may be different to ourselves, we need that discovery of the primary unity of all people as our sisters and brothers.  And all of us, throughout our lives, need to remain open to the challenge and invitation to have our dearest dreams radically transformed, and retransformed, as we learn to encounter ever more deeply the God of love revealed by Christ in unexpected people and unexpected places.

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The Year of the Body

Above the Fog

Grace Cathedral has a new strategic plan that will guide us for the next three years.

The plan focuses on widening the cathedral’s digital presence, implementing creative ways to fundraise and extending our impact in operations with a special environmental focus.

Our 2019 theme is the body.

Every year Grace Cathedral chooses a theme to unify and inspire our community to improve their lives and the world. Our 2019 theme is the body. Join us in exploring this theme through worship, the arts, social justice and more.

Listen to the first season of our new podcast!

Above the Fog is the podcast series from Grace Cathedral that shares the city’s stories with a new lens. Your guides will be the city’s artists, thinkers and doers together with cathedral voices who will inspire you with what’s meaningful about life.

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