Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“[N]ow we have received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit that is from God” (2 Cor. 2:1).
You are the salt of the earth. At 6:00 p.m., at the height of the century’s worst winter storm, I put on waterproof biking pants and a jacket to go walking in the darkness. Rain poured down in sheets. In the Presidio forest, along the ridge, 60 knot gusts of wind tore through the Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees. It sounded like a deafening freight train. As debris landed all around I felt nagging fear but also awe in the face of such power and beauty, in the presence of God. I could see no sign of another living soul except for a single light far offshore in thirty foot swells outside the Golden Gate.
This week I gradually began to understand the news. Our seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific will be closing its classrooms for in person learning and most likely selling their property (which lies across the street from the University of California, Berkeley).1 The university motto Fiat Lux, means “let there be light.” And today I want to begin by expressing what a great light our seminary has been for me during my whole adult life.
I remember going to Thursday evening community eucharists there during the ferocious El Nino storms of my first year in college. As an eighteen year old I loved the Episcopal Church. Berkeley with its four Episcopal churches, two break-away churches, a university chaplaincy, a kind of Anglican newspaper (called the New Oxford Review) and seminary seemed like heaven to me. I have fond memories of studying in the Graduate Theological Library from the time it first opened.
My college chaplain Peter Haynes had us meet in the seminary parking lot to drive together for my first retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch. The people in this setting profoundly shaped my faith as a guide to a compassionate, generous, beautiful, uniting, and thoughtful way of being. This faith opened me to the experiences of people of different backgrounds, even of different religions and of no religion. This faith also grounded me in traditions that connect us to our deepest humanity.
Before long I was kneeling on the warm red carpet at St. Clement’s Church in Berkeley and getting ordained as a priest. Soon after that I began participating in monthly Faculty
Clergy lunches. John Kater first introduced the idea of online learning to us a year after the invention of the world wide web.
For twenty years I participated in Pacific Coast Theological Society meetings at the seminary with Owen Thomas, Patricia Codron, Huston Smith, Herman Waetjen.2 I cherish my clergy colleagues who were educated there and their teachers. I can see in my mind’s eye the busy brick refectory at lunchtime with students and teachers from across the country engaged in friendly talk on a fall day as the liquid amber tree leaves outside the windows burst into an impossibly beautiful redness.
You may be getting a sense for the heartbreak I feel about our seminary, that with others I am mourning its loss. This brings us to one of Jesus’ most important lessons about how to live, known in the Gospel of Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount. Let me briefly talk about the central elements of Jesus’ teaching and then introduce a psychologist and two theologians who give us further insights into its meaning.
Today we hear the second part of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with Jesus saying “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers” (Mt. 5). Jesus does not say that one thing leads to the other as if we should somehow try to be poor in spirit in order that we might be blessed. No, Jesus speaks to US. We are the people who mourn, the humble ones frustrated by injustice, longing for goodness and mercy.
Indeed Jesus says to us this morning, “YOU are the salt of the earth… YOU are the light of the world.” The Greek word “you” is plural. It involves all of us. It is imperative to notice that Jesus is not asking us to change who we are. We are already what we need to be. We do not have to become something entirely new. We just need to learn how to magnify the goodness we already possess.
For this metaphor Jesus chooses things that in small quantities have a massive effect. A tiny bit of salt brings out the flavor of a large meal. You are that salt, enriching the banquet for everyone. A single candle flame can be seen from 1.6 miles away. It takes half an hour to walk the distance to that tiny light that might guide someone home.
So again Jesus is not saying that this is a cause and effect relationship, that by doing something good you become blessed. This is not a matter of punishment or reward. You already are blessed, so make the most of it! In an often cited passage Marianne Williamson writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who
are you not to be?” “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”3
1. In 2009 I attended a training in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. It changed my life.4 Rosenberg asserts that we all have a kind of light or energy or life that animates us. We have needs that we often do not understand for food, safety and love. Instead of trying to compel others, to force them to do we want, we should instead learn to state our need and then ask them for help. We do this knowing that all human beings have a deep longing to be of service to others.
This all begins with seeing that light in other people. And this requires that we learn to quiet the critical voice that judges others and ourselves (Rosenberg calls the jackal). He recommends that instead of using judgment words (like “you are always late”) or presuming that we know what another person is thinking, we should learn the gift of the question. We need to learn how to simply ask what another person needs. Instead of an inner life in which we criticize ourselves we need to ask ourselves what we need.
2. Today at the Forum I talked with my favorite teacher Margaret Miles about her newest book on how the third century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (345-430 CE) changed in his old age. Quite often we quote his words when we invite everyone to the communion table saying, “Be what you see. Receive what you are.”5 This is almost a riddle with the answer – the body of Christ. It reminds us that we are God’s children. We are salt and light, even when we may not feel very close to God.
Augustine talks about the difficulty of believing in miracles and what our bodies will be like in the resurrection. He says that these ideas matter only as much as they influence how we live now. In his prayer addressed to God he says that we are not only, “instructed so as to see you… but also so as to grow strong enough to hold you, and the one who cannot see you for the distance, may yet walk along the road by which he will arrive and see you and hold you…” To us he says, ”Walk without fear, run, but stay on the road… do not stand still, do not turn back, do not get sidetracked… Any who find that they may have gone astray must return to the road and walk on it, and any who find they are on the road must go on walking until they arrive.”6
3. One of my favorite writers of our generation is the gay English Roman Catholic theologian James Allison. The Stanford University professor René Girard (1923-2015) deeply influenced him. Girard taught that all human societies have what he calls the scapegoat mechanism. We covet, that is we want what other people have, this leads to instabilities and social tensions. These in turn are resolved by punishing or banishing an individual or group. We fix our social problems by blaming others. According to Allison and Girard, Jesus overturns the scapegoat mechanism and makes possible the realm of God in which all people are loved.
In my clergy group I heard the following story about James Alison. For many years he lived in Brazil. But not long after moving to Spain, a Brazilian bishop began a long and ultimately successful process of removing Alison from the priesthood. This was heartbreaking new for Alison. Then one day he received a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line told him that it was Francis, Pope Francis. Alison felt sure that it had to be a friend playing a trick on him until a number of questions fully established that this was the actual pope and that he was giving him the “power of the keys” and effectively reinstating him as a priest.7
As a gay man Alison was himself scapegoated but his light shines too brightly to be diminished. He does not hide. I give thanks for Augustine’s reminder to stay on the road to God even when our father seems so far off. I give thanks for Marshall Rosenberg’s reminder that our critical inner voice makes it hard to see the light in others. Above all, I am so grateful for the compassionate, generous and thoughtful light of the people associated with our seminary. They contributed to the faith that has guided me to this day.
That night a few weeks ago out in the storm. I encountered God. Looking at that lonely light on the ocean reminded me of one of the kids named William Hoyt who came to my ordination at St. Clement’s Church in Berkeley. His dad was a nuclear physicist and his mom a partner in a prestigious law firm. William grew up to be the captain of a tugboat. I wondered if he was out there in the storm, if it was his light that was going to guide someone home that night.
In the deafening freight train storm that surrounds us your light shines in this way also. Give the gift of the question. Do not turn back. Be what you see, receive who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
1 “CDSP Announces Shift to Fully Hybrid Education Model.” CDSP 31 January 2023. https://cdsp.edu/2023/01/cdsp-announces-shift-to-fully-hybrid-education-model/
2 I first met Norman Gottwald, Bob Russell, Ted Peters, Durwood Foster, Philip Clayton, Mark Graves, Darren Erisman, Sharon Burch, Scott MacDougall and dozens of other friends at Pacific Coast Theological Society.
3 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/928-our-deepest-fear-is-not-that-we-are-inadequate-our
4 Ursula, “Nonviolent Communications Workshop,” Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, 29 April 2009. Notebook page 134. See also Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communications: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, Your World in Harmony with Your Values. Audiobook. https://sfpl.bibliocommons.com/v2/record/S93C2415756
5 St. Augustine. “If you are Christ’s body and members, it is your mystery that is placed on the table of the Lord, it is your mystery that you receive… Be what you see and receive what you are.” Catholic Digest. https://www.catholicdigest.com/from-the-magazine/quiet-moment/st-augustine-if-you-are-christs-body-and-members-it-is-your-mystery/ Mary Carter Greene’s translation: “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
6 From Margaret Ruth Miles, Beautiful Bodies (Forthcoming). Augustine, Confessions 7:21 and En ps. 31, tr. Maria Boulding, Essential Expositions of the Psalms (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2015) 319-20. 7 I heard this story on different occasions from Donald Schell and Pat Kiefert. Some clarifying elements might be found in James Alison’s Wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Alison