Grace Cathedral is an Episcopal church in the heart of San Francisco.
We are a warm congregation, the seat of the Diocese of California and a house of prayer for all people.
We welcome visitors from all over the world.
To support the health of our community the cathedral is closed,
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Grace Cathedral is Gathering Online

Designed for a Zoom environment, the service will incorporate readings, a brief sermon, shared reflection and prayers, and conclude with an informal coffee and conversation. Join on Zoom here.  

Service of the Word

Sunday, September 27

Designed for a Zoom environment, the service will incorporate readings, a brief sermon, shared reflection and prayers, a...

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in conversation with Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of California

The Forum — Exploring the Beloved Community 

Sunday, September 27

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in conversation with Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of California

Listen to Featured Sermons

Sunday, September 20
Forgiveness and the Eleventh Hour
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (Philippians 1).

1. Last month I was on sabbatical. It was such a privilege to spend every day just drawing closer to God. I prayed. I studied Hebrew. I finished reading the theologian Karl Barth’s largest work Church Dogmatics. I surfed with whales, dolphins, seals and sea lion pups. For the first time in my life I really started making food. First brown bread, bran muffins and then a kind of fermented sweet tea called Kombucha.

Then on Monday morning we had a terrible accident. I misjudged the amount of sugar in the watermelon juice that I used to flavor my kombucha and one of the thick glass bottles exploded over night. Early in the morning my wife Heidi came down to find sticky watermelon kombucha and shards of glass all over the kitchen. In order to serve the remaining bottles in the batch I have to gently unscrew the cap and let the bottle fizz in the sink for twenty minutes before pouring it into a glass.

Similarly the pressure in us seems to be reaching unbearable proportions: the COVID pandemic, an unfolding economic disaster, persistent social problems such as racism, anxiety about the upcoming election, not to mention challenges in our individual lives that are unique to us. Through his presence and stories Jesus helps to unscrew the lid a little. He helps to relieve the pressure so that we can live more like the children of God we were made to be.

2. The Nineteenth century German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) tries to find some way to build a bridge between the objective and subjective, between what we experience as fact and the way we make sense of, and value our experience. Jesus also understands that there is an irreducibly subjective element to our existence. He tries to help us see the world with new eyes.

The parable Jesus shares with us is so carefully crafted to show who God is, who we are and more importantly what we might be. He introduces us to the kingdom of heaven which is drawing near. This episode comes at a time of terrible tension in Jesus’ own life as the last parable in his public ministry before he enters Jerusalem where he will be killed.

The word for the head of a household is oikodespotes. Matthew also uses this word when he writes, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52). Jesus is referring to a patient, wise and generous authority.

It is hard to plan in advance when you need help harvesting grapes. It is a little like brewing Kombucha (except without the explosions). Every day the householder has to taste the grapes to see if the sugar content has reached the correct level. This will give him a sense for how many workers he will need that morning.

The householder goes out to the market to hire laborers at dawn, nine, noon, three and five. With the first group he agrees to pay the usual daily wage. Then at the end of the day he pays them exactly the same amount but gives the wage to them in reverse order so that those who worked the longest see exactly how much everyone else is getting.

3. We feel so sympathetic to the long working laborers. They grumble that compared to those hired at five in the afternoon they have, “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Mt. 20). Last week with the Apostle Peter we imagined ourselves in the situation of the forgiver rather than as the one needing forgiveness. Today we see ourselves as the workers who have been there the longest.

This makes sense. It is human nature to worship, to direct our lives according to a picture of what is valuable. The reformer John Calvin wrote that, “the human mind is a factory of idols.” We cannot help ourselves. If we are not worshiping the real God we will make up false gods.

One of the most powerful gods in our time and place is the god of meritocracy. We believe that what you get should be entirely based on how hard you worked and how capable you are. The view that life is naturally like this has immense power over how we understand the people around us and on our own happiness.

National leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair constantly assume meritocracy. Barak Obama the president who personally I most closely identify with, has in 140 speeches repeated the statement, “You can make it if you try.” Another example of the power of meritocracy is the offense we took at last year’s college admissions scandal in which prominent wealthy Americans hired a consulting firm to help their children cheat in their application to selective colleges. Even in our conversations about race when we talk about white privilege there is lurking behind this the idea that our goal should be to get rid of racism so that there would be a “level playing field” and competition would effectively determine who got the good things in society.

It was only in 1958 that the British sociologist Michael Dunlop Young first coined the word in his book The Rise of Meritocracy. This satirical novel is a history about our present written in an imagined future (2033). In that world a merit-based system has created new elites who replaced the social classes of the 1950’s and created deep resentment in society (much like we experience now). Young hated the way the word “meritocracy” came into modern language without the negative connotations he intended for it.

My former professor at Harvard Michael Sandel has just written a book about how the idol of meritocracy subverts the greater good. He points out that there has never been anything like equality of opportunity. As a result, this way of thinking mostly just legitimates inequality. It merely provides a rationale for why some people have so much and others have nothing. Sandel also writes that it leads elites to look down on people working in jobs that are absolutely essential for society.

Schools and colleges exacerbate this dynamic. At Ivy League and other prestigious colleges there are more students from families in the wealthiest one percent than in the bottom fifty percent. Sandel says, “American higher education is more like an elevator in a building that most people enter from the top floor.” He suggests that after screening to be sure that applicants have reached a certain level, admissions at Harvard should just be random. Most of all he feels convinced that meritocracy causes real spiritual suffering writing, “A powerful meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes.” The inequality of esteem may be far more important than the inequality of wealth.

4. This all brings us back to Jesus’ unsettling story about the Realm of God. This parable has been designed to make a point. That meritocracy story, the ingrained idea that hard works should be rewarded is simply not the way God’s Kingdom works. God provides us not with rewards but gifts. And this should change how we experience everything.

The story is very subtle and perfectly suited to this time of public resentment. The early morning workers are not seeking more money for themselves. Strictly speaking they not are envious of the late workers in the sense that they don’t want something that the late workers have. Instead their grumbling has to do with scorn. They complain, “you have made them equal to us.” They want the late workers to have less than themselves. They regard the late arrivals as less worthy. They hate the householder for erasing the hierarchy that their sense of identity depends on.

The householder will simply not accept this logic. Our translation says “are you envious because I am generous,” but this is a totally different sense than the Greek which has him asking, “is your eye evil?” Earlier in this gospel Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (or literally if your eye is evil), your whole body will be full of darkness” (Mt. 6).

According to the householder the problem is with how the early workers see. They received exactly what they expected for the day but couldn’t see that all their friends received so much more than expected. They see the world in “us versus them” terms rather than rejoicing in the “we” which has just received such a fabulously generous windfall.

They see only competition and status in God’s vineyard of abundance and generosity. A story about their superiority has dimmed the lamps of their eyes so that they can only see rivals not comrades. Even the householder’s exorbitant generosity becomes the occasion for division and resentment, a chance to look down on their brothers.

Jesus is not saying that hard work shouldn’t be rewarded only that God’s grace simply doesn’t work like that. God’s kingdom is based on generosity. Today as we celebrate stewardship Sunday we have the most practical way to experience this ourselves. We can make our annual gift to this cathedral and be generous in this way that helps us see beyond the us versus them.

I’m so grateful for the way that Jesus has loosened the cap of my life and helped me to see the world in a new more joyful way. Over time he is changing me in this way more than almost any other. I am becoming less concerned about getting what I deserve and much more capable of rejoicing when good things happen for other people.

Don’t let the sense of gift or grace be banished from your life. Fully share our common fate as human beings. Together, hopeful, strong – be generous and rejoice in the generosity you have received from our father.

Sunday, September 13
What Is Real? Living from the Heart
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves… whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14).

1. What is real? Today we cannot agree about what is really real. In the newspapers, social media and phone calls with people we haven’t heard from in a long time we are fighting about what counts as important, who is valued, whose voice should be heard, who has been wronged or hurt.

At the end of the second chapter of his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau imagines a realometer, settling down far below the surface to the rock bottom level of facts. He says, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

We got a lot of reality this week. This Wednesday for the first time in our lives the sun never rose and never set. On that dark day of orange skies, the stable earth and sky we habitually take for granted became eclipsed by smoke from millions of acres burning across the West. We can no longer avoid the truth that humanity is destroying this earth, our island home.

These days our fear seems more real than almost anything else. Will the upcoming elections be fair? What will happen if powerful people refuse to accept the results? Will democracy in America survive this generation? No matter how deeply conscious you may have been of racism over the last thirty years these days we cannot help but see this injustice in a new light. There is so much disappointment and pain but also extraordinary and violent denial among fragile white people.

And then there’s the pandemic. Authorities lead us to wonder if there will ever be a safe vaccine for COVID. Will we be allowed to do what we love again? Will we ever be really together? Will life ever feel normal? Could we be among the many who die alone? For those who live by faith Jesus brings us back to what is real. In different ways through various conditions, as our life unfolds, he shows us reality.

Last year you held my hand as I learned to be an empty-nester. Now we’re re-nesting. Because sophomores are not allowed on campus this fall our college-age daughter is home with us again. And this time she’s learning to drive a car. It all starts at a parking lot in the Presidio. Do you remember that feeling? Suddenly an adult is handing you keys for a vehicle. You have no idea how this collection of several tons of steel and plastic works but at the same time you know that it could kill you and other people.

The dashboard makes no sense at all. You don’t know how to turn or stop. You have no instincts for where to look or who should go first, just tremendous power that had always been forbidden before. It’s terrifying.

Except… except that there is a reassuring presence next to you. This person knows where to go and intuits what you might be afraid of and gives you confidence to do things you thought were impossible. This person calmly seems to have a plan for the moment when everything spins out of control.

This is what it feels like to have Jesus in your life. We have never existed before and Jesus helps us to find our direction and the best way to use our power. Jesus is the Christian person’s realometer. Jesus helps us to see what is merely a distraction and what really lies at the heart of our existence. This isn’t some form of magic. Today we celebrate Congregation Sunday. Church, however flawed, brings the spirit of Jesus into our daily lives. And today Jesus offers one of the most important instructions that we could have for navigating our life.

2. Perhaps no one told you this but a central skill for being human is forgiveness. This morning Jesus helps us to understand forgiveness. In a wonderful book on the subject the bible scholar Bill Countryman writes, “Forgiveness is a critical topic for our time… I don’t know whether we find it harder to forgive than people of other eras or whether we just have more to forgive, but the inability or refusal to forgive has become one of the great destructive elements in the modern world… We hold grudges… seek revenge. We cultivate victimhood as an identity…. We find ourselves trapped in anger, resentment, spite, dread and hostility – emotions that poison our lives.”

In an intended irony Peter who so soon after this betrays his friend Jesus three times, implicitly puts himself in the place of the forgiver rather than the one needing forgiveness (don’t we all)? Peter asks Jesus, “If any member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Mt. 18). Seven is the number of completeness, wholeness, restoration (retribution). Jesus responds saying not seven times but seventy-seven times. He’s referring to a story in the book of Genesis about Cain’s (of Cain and Abel)’s great great great grandson who says that if Cain is going to be avenged seven times, he will be avenged seventy-seven times (Gen. 4:24).

Jesus replaces unlimited vengeneance with infinite forgiveness. To explain he immerses us in a dreamlike world of high stakes. Because we’re not familiar with the culture or the currency we might miss how bizarre this alternate universe is. A king wants to settle accounts with his slave who seems to have something like a very lucrative license to collect taxes.

After checking the accounts it turns out that the slave owes (in Greek) murion talanton. We translate this as 10,000 talents but really it is more. It is a multiple of the largest number (10,000) of the greatest denomination of currency (the talent). A talent was worth 65 pounds of silver or 6,000 days’ wages. That amounts to more than 650,000 pounds of silver or 60 million days of labor. At current silver prices ($206/pound) that’s multiples of $134 million according to the silver calculation or $3.5 billion according to the daily labor calculation (using the Federal Minimum wage of $7.25/hour). Compare this to the mere 900 talents which was the annual income of King Herod the Great.

This is an incalculable amount – selling himself, his family and all his possessions is not going to cover this. The slave falls to his knees and begs, “have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. If it were not so tragic this promise would seem almost silly. And yet the king feels compassion in his splanknon, in the deepest part of him, and forgives everything. The king releases this man from the world of retribution, from the world where everything has a price. But the slave cannot break this habit and is drawn back into the world he started with.

As he leaves the king the forgiven slave runs into a fellow-slave who owes him denarii. A denarius equals a day’s wage (the $7.25 minimum wage times 8 hours = or $58). He owes a total of $580. For this small amount of money he chokes the fellow slave who then begs using his same exact words. But in this case the forgiven slave refuses any mercy. Other slaves alert the king to what has happened and he punishes the first slave. Jesus says, “So my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

3. Although the point that we owe God far more than anyone owes us is obvious, let me say a few things about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not a duty. It is not a difficult and discrete task. It is not a way of brushing things under the rug or saying that “he didn’t really mean it” or pretending that what was evil really wasn’t. It is not making excuses for other people’s behavior. It should not be a tool of emotional manipulation, or a reason to stay in relationships that damage us as children made in the image of God.

Forgiveness is not something we engage in on occasion. It is an overall way of walking with Jesus in the world. It is a way of remembering that we are far more often the offender than we are the forgiver. William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II. He writes that repentance isn’t remorse. It means to have the mind of God. This is the attitude of forgiveness and you can’t just force yourself to see things this way. You have to receive it as a gift from God.

Earlier I said faith in Jesus involves learning a new state of mind in the same way that we gradually learn the skills for driving. Forgiveness lies at the heart of this. It means embodying the truth of the Good News in our lives. We don’t have to constantly be justifying ourselves or always be right or think that our worth comes from having power over others.

Instead we can live in gratitude for what we are receiving from God every day – our life and all its opportunities to serve. We were created for this. When we do we feel God’s grace.

After the winds shifted in their little valley in Montana two of our closest friends had only ten minutes to evacuate their house. Will immediately went to help the neighbor collect his horses. Caroline scrambled to pick up birth certificates and family photo albums. Within a half hour their propane tank exploded and they lost everything except their lives.

Here’s what happened next. As they drove out through the smoke another car with halters was coming in to rescue stranded horses and cows. At dinner the owner of the restaurant heard what had happened and insisted on paying for the meal. The next day the same thing happened in a pizza restaurant. One of the ladies overheard what happened. She’s the same size as Caroline and gave her a box of new clothes. With a choked up voice Caroline told me story after story. She said, “people have been great. No politics. Just kindness. The path of hate is not what is natural to us.”

Brothers and sisters goodness, love and forgiveness are more real than our fears. Whenever and however we gather Jesus is in the midst of us like a patient driving instructor who helps us move behind the world of retribution and into the mercy of God’s love. This week your homework is to embrace forgiveness – not as a distinct task but as a skill of living, as a quality of your mind and heart. Become more deeply a giver and receiver of mercy. Be a child of God who knows that love beyond measure is the reality at the center of our existence. Live from the heart.

Discover Grace

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Five months after the start of the pandemic, with precautions securely in place, the Grace Cathedral Community Preschool reopened its doors on August 24. 

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The coronavirus has created great hardship across our community and the world, and Grace Cathedral is taking action. In this personal address from inside the cathedral, Dean Malcolm Clemens Young shares highlights of our work distributing resources, building new bridges with God through technology and supporting those in need.

A Call to Reject Racism and Engage in the Work of Justice

The Rev. Canon Dr. Ellen Clark-King, Vice Dean and Canon for Social Justice, shares a bold call to reject racism, and engage in the work of justice. Learn more about our work in anti-racism, and be inspired to do this important work together.

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