“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom. 13).
Matthew uses the Greek word for church (“ekklesia”) in only two places. One of them occurs in our gospel reading today. He concludes this passage about Christian community with one of my favorite lines in the Bible. Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18).
To most people in our culture this is not intuitively obvious. Outside the church, people describe faith as a private matter. It is something that happens to you by yourself on a mountaintop in the Sierras or alone on a tropical beach or woodland lake. Jesus tells the disciples that life in Christ happens in community even if it is only a community of two.
Perhaps this is his way of saying we need each other, not just practically, but spiritually also. He knows that we’ll be smarter and stronger together than apart, that only together will we have a chance to accomplish something great. He reminds us that we need each other the way brothers and sisters do. We, as Jesus’ disciples, belong to one family.
Last month our adult children moved back home. It’s been so wonderful to have them with us. It reminds me that families work well they become God’s way of teaching us important lessons, like how to share and cooperate. We learn how to take care of someone else who may need something very different than we do. Family life smooths out the rough edges of our character. We learn that we can’t always have everything our own way. We give up what we want so someone else can have what they want.
Living with others teaches us to negotiate and compromise, to figure out together what’s best for the group. While this is not always pleasant, I believe it is a way that we become more fully human. It can take a long time to learn what your family has to teach you. Fortunately families don’t just teach us how to fight but how to forgive each other too.
But not everyone grew up in families that worked well, because some don’t. These families do not teach forgiveness and cooperation. Often in them rules are more important than people and the first rule is silence about anything that might make waves. They say, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Some families use this rule to enforce a kind of fake harmony. They use it to mean that if you have a problem with someone, you keep it to yourself, because the illusion of getting along is more important than anything else. This illusion is more important than the truth, more important than your feelings and even more important than you.
It is sad, but many families teach this lesson. Jesus’ point this morning is that the Christian family does not work like this. Jesus says that if your brother sins against you, you have to go back and talk to him. If this doesn’t work, you must keep going to him with others and do everything that you can to be his brother again.
Two things stand out about this advice. First, Jesus puts the burden of reconciliation on the victim, the person who was sinned against. This is not advice that holds in extreme situations, such as ones involving abuse. But for more ordinary interactions with each other Jesus wants us to cultivate an openness to the other person.
Second, he seems less interested in who was right than in getting the family back together again. What seems to matter most to him is that as members of his family we listen to each other. If a family member refuses to listen we do everything we can to keep the doors of communication open. Jesus insists that we do not simply pretend that nothing has happened. He wants us to recognize when someone has left our family, because the only thing worse than losing a sister or brother, is losing that person and yet still having them around.
We all can see the wisdom of this advice. In theory we know we should do this, but in practice we think of a thousand excuses not to. So let’s imagine what it would be like to really follow Jesus this way. So much of my sermon today comes from the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. I could use material from our life together as an example but I don’t want to embarrass anyone so I have modified Taylor’s story to suit our situation.
Imagine sitting in church every week and getting to know the person next to you. Let’s say his name is Duke and the two of you also share an interest in surfing. One September morning Duke asks to borrow your surfboard. You won’t be using it and it feels good to lend a Christian brother something that gives you both so much joy. The next week the waves are up and you want it back. Duke doesn’t return your calls. Finally you get through to him and he tells you that he lent the surfboard to someone else. That person damaged the board. It’s not just a little ding. He tells you that it was bad luck but your board broke in half.
This doesn’t seem fair to you so you go over and talk to him. You say that because you are friends you’d be willing to pay half the cost of a new board. Duke gets angry and tells you that it wasn’t his fault, that the other guy broke the board and that you should be a better sport about it.
So you go back home and choose two fellow congregants at random and go back. This time Duke is really mad. He accuses you of ganging up on him and embarrassing him in front of others. He yells at you to get off his property before he calls the police.
Imagine sending out an email to everyone at the Cathedral asking them to meet in front of Duke’s house on Saturday afternoon. Since you know he won’t open the door you make signs that say, “Forget the surfboard, Duke” or “Let’s talk.” On Saturday everyone is there and the house is locked up tightly. You see the drapes pull back just a little to one side. You know Duke is watching so you smile and wave for him to come out. Ten minutes later Duke sheepishly comes out of the house and hands you a check for the broken board.
I know what you’re thinking. “I sure am sick of stories about surfing.” Perhaps even more likely you are saying to yourself, “that wouldn’t work.” But my point is how do you know? Have you ever tried something like this? Usually when I feel wronged by someone my strategy differs substantially from what Jesus suggests. The first thing I want to do is to pretend like nothing happened. Forget that old surfboard. Just let it go; don’t be upset. The awkwardness that I feel around Duke is better than a fight. I try to ignore it even though I can’t.
The second strategy is the cold shoulder. You don’t tell the person what is bothering you because that would be impolite, but you show it by treating them as if they weren’t there. It doesn’t occur to you to ask them what happened between the two of you because you assume that you already know.
The third strategy is revenge. Most of us wouldn’t quite call it that because we’re Christians, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing. We have such bad feelings in our heart that we do our best to turn other people against the one who hurt us. We tell jokes at their expense hoping that it will make us feel better.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce he describes hell as a vast abandoned city, a kind of sprawl. The people have intractable conflicts with each other and simply move further away from the center so that they can be on their own. Lewis says that hell keeps growing larger and larger because everyone consistently chooses distance over confrontation.
Jesus instructs us to do the opposite of this, to choose closeness even though it means confrontation. We have a thousand excuses to avoid confrontation. We say, “she’s the one who did something wrong, let her come to me,” or, “it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.” And so things never change.
These excuses are fine if you want to stay alone in your suburban hell, but they are not acceptable for those of us who are called to be in a Christian community. For Christians there is something more important than being right or wrong, and that is being a family together. Our real problem is not the wrong that someone has done to us, but our own desperate desire to defend ourselves at any cost. It is how quickly we will give up on relationships in order to nurture our own wounded pride.
The good news is that we do not have to inhabit an ever-expanding hell by avoiding conflict. Jesus says we can go to people who have hurt us and tell them what is wrong or even better what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we might have been wrong. We can ask ourselves if we really know what happened, where we got our information. We can think about our own motives in confronting the other person, whether we are doing it to hurt their feelings or to make peace. We can ask what it is that we are afraid of, whether the relationship is worth it.
Perhaps this last question is the most important one. Once you’ve decided that the relationship is what you want, you’ve taken the first step to realizing that your goal is not to win an argument but to be reconciled. At that point it is time to set the lunch date, make the phone call or write the note that is the first step toward having your brother or sister back. For homework this week, whether you are online or here in person, take this step to seek reconciliation or to build a new relationship.
It is not easy to be part of a family. In many ways it would be so much simpler if we were just a bunch of people here every Sunday each having an individual experience of God in the same church building. But a private relationship with God is not what Jesus intends for us. Our life together, through thick and thin is the primary way that God chooses to be with us, not only to smooth off the rough edges of our characters, but because we need to be loved and cared for by other people. God saves us through each other. How we choose to be reconciled with each other affects how we can be reconciled with God.
This seems like a hard teaching. When someone sins against us, Jesus wants us to be the first one to reach out for reconciliation even when we’ve done nothing wrong, even when we want to fight back, or seek cover.
The theologian Karl Barth writes that, “[The one] who loves is [the one] who has been touched by the freedom of God.” This freedom, this joy is what Jesus wants us to have. So we are called to confront, to persevere and heal, to forgive and seek forgiveness – to throw a party in the center of hell and fill it with such music and laughter, with such love and affection, that all of its residents come in from their distant retreats to see for themselves this joy that we share as a family.
 This entire sermon is so heavily indebted to Barbara Brown Taylor. It follows her outline and borrows her ideas and even illustrations. I’ve tried to use my own language but at times I can’t help but borrow even the words she uses to describe this experience. The sermon is Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 83-90.
 Since early childhood my brother has always been such a gentle soul. Perhaps most of our fights arose out of my tendency to always tell him what to do. I thought this would help him be better than he was. This may not have been so bad when he was younger, but starting in middle school he simply didn’t want to hear it any more. It has only been as an adult that I finally (but not perfectly) learned to stop doing this.
 “Week after week you sit in a pew next to Joe, whom you get to know rather well, so well that one day in early September he asks if he can borrow you lawn mower…” Ibid., 86
 “”Was there once a much larger population?” “Not at all… The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week’s over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of town and build a new house… That’s how the town keeps growing.” C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (NY: Macmillan, 1946) 18-19.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 498.
 “When someone crosses us we are called to be the first to reach out, even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong… That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed – to throw a block party smack in the deserted center of hell and fill the place with such music and laughter, such merriment and mutual affection that all the far-flung residents come creeping in from their distant outposts to see what the fuss, the light, the joy is all about.” Barbara Brown Taylor, “Family Fights” in The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 89-90.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12).
1. Where is God to be found? About a hundred years ago, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote these words, “I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all / my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small / and in the vast you vastly yield yourself. // The wondrous game that power plays with Things / is to move in such submission through the world: / groping in roots and growing thick in trunks / and in treeptops like a rising from the dead.”
Yesterday I came across an old journal from October 2000, when our son was one year old. I wrote, “Micah is drinking bathwater now. He downs it like a pot-belly’d Monday night football fan at the local tavern, stands up and then coughs.” I go on to describe finding him under the microwave eating through a plastic bag of russet potatoes (and one eighth of a potato). A page later, he had learned to climb by pushing his chair against the couch and walking along the back of it tightrope style.
It was a pleasure to have these moments brought back to me. God seemed so present in those days of discovery, for me as a new parent, and for Micah as a new human being. James Finley offers a vision for what he calls a “contemplative way of life,” a form of existence that recognizes God as our true center. Contemplation means really looking and paying close attention. Perhaps I had more of a chance to do this when I took care of small children.
Most of what we experience we notice only in passing as we are on our way to something else. But every so often, we find a reason to pause. Something catches our eye. Then suddenly, we find ourselves immersed in a deeper reality. We really encounter what is in front of us: a field of spring Presidio wildflowers, the billions of worlds in the summer night sky, the seemingly infinite calm dark September waters off Point Bonita, the unexpected sound of a cricket in our city, or the joy of children playing.
Although these are absolutely ordinary phenomena, in each case, something has broken us out of the web of worries and judgments that usually dominate our inner lives. These moments of openness almost seem to come before thought. Suddenly we become conscious, in Finley’s words that, “we are the cosmic dance of God.” The fullness of being completely in God surprises us.
We might find ourselves wondering, what do I do now? Often nothing. Our cell phone summons us or a new version of an old worry occurs to us. But when we look back on times like these, we know that they felt like a kind of homecoming, like we belong there. Finley says that, “[W]hen you start understanding your life in light of these moments, you realize this feeling that you’re skimming over the surface of the depths of your own life. It’s all the more unfortunate because God’s unexplainable oneness with us is hidden in the depths over which we are skimming.”
In our disappointment, “[W]e say to ourselves, “I don’t like living this way.”” I don’t want to be separated from the place where I most experience God’s love. I want to abide with God always.
2. Moses lived in an untenable political situation. The Pharaoh had ordered his people to murder all male children of the Hebrews. Moses’ parents abandoned him in a basket of reeds. The royal princess found him and raised him as her child. When Moses saw his people being brutalized he murdered a man and had to escape as a refugee. While tending his father-in-law’s sheep, a sight caught Moses’ attention.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a bush that was blazing and yet not consumed (Ex. 3). Moses said to himself, ”I must turn aside and look at this great sight” (Ex. 3). God describes a plan of liberation for the Israelites. Moses comically comes up with five excuses for why he thinks God has chosen the wrong person.
God reassures him, “I will be with you.” You will have what you need when you go to Pharoah. This is not enough for Moses. Finally Moses says, what if the Israelites ask your name. And God replies, tell them “I AM has sent me to you” (Ex. 3). Some interpreters suggest this is some kind of humor or a clever way that God avoids the question.
But for me this refers to that experience I described earlier, when our ego drops away and we are united to our creator. It is the gratitude we feel for just being alive and to the one who brought us forth out of nothing. Where is God to be found? In the “I,” the “I AM,” beyond thought, deep within both our self and the world.
3. I spent the first part of the summer, basically in heaven, carefully reading Volume One of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. The experience of Moses on Mount Horeb lies at the heart of her understanding of God. She begins with the idea that God is one, God is absolutely unique. Nothing is like God. We cannot think something that is absolutely unique. She writes, “God is concrete, superabundantly particular.”
Sonderegger points out that for this reason, the reality of God, especially for us in modern times, is hidden. She uses the word “omnipresence” to describe God. It does not just mean that God is everywhere but that, most often, we fail to perceive God. She says that nature in a sense hides God. And that in our time atheists help us to more deeply appreciate God’s hiddenness, that “even in indifference and defiance” they in a sense glorify God.
It is not just that modern universities fail to teach about God, their methods have become fully secularized. She calls this “Methodological atheism” and defines it as, “the conviction that God cannot be a reality or dimension in the principled means of knowledge in the modern intellectual world.” Indeed, I would not want my rheumatologist or a Federal Reserve Bank economist appealing to God in their academic papers.
We do not learn about God through the scientific method because God is not a thing. “God is not an object of our thought the way that an apple is… “God does not “stand open” and static in that way to our faculties…” waiting noiselessly to be discovered. “Yet… God will stand open to our knowledge of him as Truth.”
How does this happen you might ask? At this point Sonderegger compares our experience of God with our relationships to each other. Unlike inanimate objects human beings disclose themselves to us. We know that the people we meet have an inner life. They show it to us in their words and actions. Sonderegger writes, ”We must speak or give ourselves away, in gesture or act of kindness or savage cruelty or deep intimacy.” I’m sharing myself with you right now as I talk about what it felt like for me to become a parent.
Sonderegger writes God is lord of our knowledge of him, that in humility and like human beings, God chooses to share himself with us. One of her favorite ideas is that God is compatible with the world and us. This is part of the importance of Moses’ Burning Bush for Sonderegger. God is with us.
We do not experience all of God. But God gives us a hint of transcendence in the way that the bush is burned but not consumed. God draws near and his creatures are not destroyed. God is invisible and mysterious, utterly “other” than us and yet in our midst. We know God in our inner experience.
In Romans, Paul writes, “Beloved never avenge yourself” because revenge separates us from God. When Paul writes extend hospitality to strangers he uses the word philoxeniav which is the love of strangers. The word is related to our word xenophobia or fear of strangers. He asks us to avoid vengeance and love strangers because that is how we often come to see God.
When Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” the word he uses is not life but psuchēn or soul. What is at stake in these burning bush moments is our soul.
3. In all our time together I have never shared a poem that I wrote myself. This is about a walk Micah and I took when he was a one year old. It’s called “Swamp Maples.”
“In the sorrowing rain / Together we walk / Through wet autumn grass / From New England meadows / Into silent woods / And the brooding dark. // With each spongy step / I feel your weight / Shift further over / In the backpack / Until I know / You sleep.// I worry that / The damp mist / Will make you cold. / In the corner of my eye / I see your soft angel / Face under the navy hood. / Your tiny hand touches / My back just beneath the shoulder. / I listen for your breath / And want to wake you / From all death.”
“The fog brings / Everything closer in. / The yellowed ferns and / Ancient bark. / A million / Diamond drops / On the hemlock needles. / Until we leave the grasping roots / Of Pine Hill / For the burning colors of the lowlands. // We step through the swamp / On a thin crimson carpet / Of maple leaves / The gold leaf / ceiling above our heads / Burns with perfect brightness / Through the gray day. / The light illuminating / These trees / Seems to come from inside. // I stop to pray / My boots sinking / In black mud. / Thank you God / For all you have given / Us that we / Never could see before.”
There is only one reason I am speaking to you today. There is only one thing I need to remind you. Seek God. Do not just skim over the surface of the depths of your own life. “Turn aside and look at this great sight.” “I Am” has sent you. So step away from the web of worries and judgments into a deeper reality, into the cosmic dance of God.
Help us find you Lord, “in all things and in all [our] fellow creatures pulsing with your life.”
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Tr. Stephen Mitchell (NY: Modern Library, 1995) 9.
 Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal, 10 October 2000 and 17-18 September 2000.
 James Finley, “Waking Up to Life,” The Center for Action and Contemplation, 28 August 2023. https://cac.org/daily-meditations/waking-up-to-life-2023-08-28/
 Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015) 27.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 54-5.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 76.
 Malcolm Clemens Young, Harvard Journal, 16 October 2000.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt. 16).
1. Who is Jesus and what are the keys of the kingdom? Yesterday on Market Street a man wearing worn clothes and just socks on his feet walked along pushing people at random as they waited in a security line to enter Ross’ clothing store. Another man crouched in the corner of a bus stop bent over with his head at knee height repeatedly wailing from the heart as a police officer stood five feet away with a loudly barking German shepherd on tight leash. Another man was lying on the ground at Eddy and Mason his hair full of litter.
Drugs and mental illness touch nearly every person you encounter just down the hill from here. Most of the stores have left and the world seems like it is ending. This kind of feeling pervades the beginning of J.T. Alexander’s book I Am Sophia.
His science fiction novel describes a not so distant future as climate change makes the planet uninhabitable. The center of gravity for human culture seems to have shifted into outer space as investors in places like Mars support companies here in the Bay Area doing gene engineering and carbon sequestration.
San Francisco has been renamed Sanef and is one of several independent nations formed after the collapse of America. Like narcotics in our time, many people of the future have become addicted to Stims (this acronym which stands for “Sensory-Targetted Immersive Mindtech”). It is a kind of virtual reality that destroys souls. Horrifying and dehumanizing levels of inequality have become commonplace. Poor people are shunned and called lowcontributors. Sometimes they will have their minds effectively erased by the government.
Nihilistic terrorists frequently kill ordinary people with bombs. There is almost no religion of any kind. People call it metaphysics (or metafiz) and respond to it with a mixture of disdain, suspicion and fear (as many do around us today). In this anti-religious world of the future there is only one remaining Christian church in the universe. It has ten worshipers and a doubting twenty-nine year old bishop named Peter Halabi. That church is in the ruins of Grace Cathedral.
In that future time this very building has holes in the ceiling and the stained glass windows have long been boarded up. But the eleven worship faithfully every Sunday in the Chapel of Nativity. Peter worries that he will have to shepherd the church to extinction. He looks up to that same mural and the image of Mary and says, “I’m not asking… for a big miracle… Just something to let me know [God’s] still up there.”1
Soon a tent appears in front of the Ghiberti Doors. The homeless woman sheltered there enters the church just as Peter is about to read the lesson. She takes the book from him to read and her first words are “I am.” This seems to refer to God’s self-description at the burning bush. It is the way the gospels often describe Jesus. It is the meaning of the letters in the corners of icons. This young woman with a scar on her face walks like a dancer. She calls herself Sophia (a biblical word for the divine feminine) and for most of the book we wonder about her. Is she God, the second coming of Jesus Christ? Or is she sick, unstable and deranged. Or is she just a fraud manipulating the gullible Christians for the sake of her own agenda?
2. This feels like the Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus walks on water and then rescues faltering Peter the disciples say, “what sort of man is this” (Mt. 8:27)? The crowds seem to be wondering the same thing when Jesus asks his friends, “Who do people say the Son of Man is” (Mt. 16)?
Although we have to answer this question in our lives, as readers of this gospel we stand outside the experience of those depicted in Matthew. We see what they do not. The Gospel begins with these words, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah…” (Mt. 1:1). As we read we wonder when, and which one of them, will realize who Jesus is.
This exchange between Jesus and Peter happens in Caesarea Philippi, the capital of the Tetrarchy of Philip son of Herod the Great. Herod dedicated the famous Temple there to Rome and to Emperor Augustus, whose statue stood there. He was the first emperor to add to his title: “Divi Filius” or “Son of the Divine.”
Jesus asks his friends who they say he is and Peter says, “You are the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16). Soon we see that Peter does not yet really understand what he is saying. All of us have trouble with this. We think of Jesus as simply a more powerful version of Emperor Augustus when Jesus is really overthrowing that whole way of being.
Jesus shows that the way of domination and self-aggrandizement although it seems stable and powerful on the surface is like sand. In contrast we have the path of Peter with his imperfections, his courage and fear, his insight and foolishness, but above all his
faith. This improbable foundation is the rock upon which our lives can be founded. This is faith which is a kind of pursuit rather than an accomplishment.
Going on Jesus says, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” (Mt. 16). Through history this sentence has been used to justify the church in those moments when we have been more like the Emperor Augustus than like Jesus, as if some institutional authority in Rome or Canterbury could have power over whether a person can be saved.
This could not be further from the truth. The Biblical scholar Herman Waetjen points out several other ancient examples that clarify what Matthew means. The power of the keys has to do more with things and policies than people. For instance, the historian Josephus writes about Queen Alexandra who ruled the Hasmonean Kingdom from 78-69 BCE. She deputized Pharisees as the administrators of the state and gave them the power, “to loose and to bind.” For Herman this power is about determining what practices are permitted or forbidden.2
We all have a role in this. We all in our way preach the gospel through what we say and how we live. We contribute to the picture of what is acceptable. And we have a responsibility for creating the kind of society which is humane in its care for the people I saw on the streets yesterday.
The puritan theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) writes that the reason for this passage about the keys is that over history it has been dangerous to speak Jesus’ truth and it is important for us to know both that we are doing God’s work and that God stands beside us as we do.3
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that the thought of God will always disturb the world. Our relations with each other, will never be perfectly clear. We will never adequately understand our situation in the world. That is the reason we need to orient ourselves toward the Eternal, to God. Barth says, “For the vast ambiguity of our life is at once its deepest truth… We know that our thinking of the thought of eternity is never a thing completed in time…”4 Our attention to Jesus, our prayer, is how we avoid being conformed to the world. It is how, instead, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ (Rom. 12).
About half of I Am Sophia takes place at Grace Cathedral and half on Mars. In the book, Sophia was terribly abused as a child but she found nourishment in the Bible and other Christian books. This made her a kind of theologian. Was Sophia the Christ? I do not
want to spoil the book for you. As he finds himself falling in love with her, Sophia has a great deal to teach the young bishop, and perhaps us also.
She says, “You are the guardian of a great treasure. It is your tradition, and it has an incredible spiritual value, an almost miraculous capacity to change lives for the better. But you misplaced the keys to the treasure chest… when scripture and religion became primarily about trying to determine who was right and who was wrong.”5
Later she gives a kind of invocation, “May your soul have deep roots and strong wings.”6 This means that followers of Jesus need to have a foundation, a stable identity, but we also need room to evolve. Changes in technology and society leave modern people less rooted and more focused on wings. You see this in their emphasis on individual freedom, innovation and progress.
In contrast, many Christians regard the secular world as destructive and offtrack. This leads them to become so backward looking that they are all roots and no wings. The living, loving God of the gospel became to them static and oppressive. What does not evolve dies.
This summer’s survey and our town hall meeting this morning address consider this issue. The idea lies at the heart of our mission statement to “reimagine church with courage, joy and wisdom.” For generations Grace Cathedral has been known for this. But it is up to us if we will continue to have roots and wings.
Near the end of the novel, Sophia says to Peter, “You think strength means being untouched by the suffering we are approaching. You still do not know me…”7 Will San Francisco as we know it die as people self-centeredly and obsessively seek to save themselves? Will the future Grace Cathedral lie in ruins? Will the world know who Jesus is?
At the center of Grace Cathedral is not a statue of the emperor or a belief in domination and self-assertion. At the heart of our being is a living person, the living child of God. He calls us by name and offers the keys to a deeper, more humane and faithful life. Come let us follow Jesus.8
1 J.F. Alexander, I am Sophia: A Novel (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock, 2021) 7.
2 Herman Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity: God’s New Israel as the Pioneer of God’s New Humanity (NY: Bloomsbury, 2017) 185-7.
3 “It was important for the apostles to have constant and perfect assurance in their preaching, which they were not only to carry out in infinite labors, cares, troubles, and dangers, but at last to seal with their own blood. In order that they might know, I say, that this assurance was not vain or empty, but full of power and strength, it was important for them to be convinced that in such anxiety, difficulty and danger they were doing God’s work; also for them to recognize that God stood beside them while the whole world opposed and attached them; for them, not having Christ, the Author of their doctrine before their eyes on earth, to know that he, in heaven, confirms the truth of the doctrine which he had delivered to them…” John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. John T. McNeill, Tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) 1213 (4.11.1).
4 “There is – and this is what we mean – a thinking of the thought of grace, of resurrection, of forgiveness, and of eternity. Such thinking is congruous with our affirmation of the full ambiguity of our temporal existence. When once we realize that the final meaning of our temporal existence lies in our questioning as to its meaning, then it is that we think of eternity – in our most utter collapse. For the vast ambiguity of our life is at once its deepest truth. And moreover, when we think this thought, our thinking is renewed; for such rethinking is repentance. We know too that our thinking of the thought of eternity is never a thing completed in time, for it is full of promise. As an act of thinking it dissolves itself; it participates in the pure thought of God, and is there an accepted sacrifice, living, holy, acceptable to God.” Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th Edition tr. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 437.
5 J.F. Alexander, I am Sophia: A Novel (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, Wipf and Stock, 2021) 60.
6 Ibid., 95.
7 Ibid., 168.
8 Matthew Boulton, “Who do you say that I am…”, SALT, 21 August 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/8/18/who-do-you-say-that-i-am-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twelfth-week-after-pentecost
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom. 10).
The section of the Bible that comes before the Old Testament story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers is very fresh in my mind. It begins with these words, “This is the story of the family of Jacob” (Gen. 37).
What is your family story? My mother grew up in Yorkshire during World War II with a German mother and an English father. Although the air raids frightened her, and she could not understand why an enemy would bomb children, she enjoyed her early childhood with her brother, sister, and parents. After my grandfather heard her speaking with a local Yorkshire accent as she played with some friends, he very quickly sent her away to Roedean boarding school when she was very little. My mother left England forever with her family in the 1950’s.
My father grew up as the oldest child with a brother and a sister. His father who was an Episcopal priest and his mother taught preschool. There is something in my family DNA that leads us to marry people from different countries and cultures. Many of you know that my wife comes from a family deeply rooted on the island of Maui. Her family background includes Native Hawaiians and Native Americans, as well as people whose families come from Japan, China, Ireland, England, and Western Europe.
People in my family do not really have a home, although we long for one. Our lives have taught us how to be ready to make new friends and meet new people. For homework, I want you to talk about your family story as you drive home today. How does your family fit into an ongoing story that began long before we were born? It is hard sometimes to talk honestly about the forces that shaped our family culture or about what kind of family we want to be.
“[T]he story of the family of Jacob” includes some unforgettable characters. Jacob had a complicated relationship with his own parents. As a second-born twin, he was his mother’s favorite. Once when his brother Essau was hungry, Jacob made him sell his birthright as firstborn for some stew he had made. Later Jacob’s mother helped him to trick his blind father into blessing him.
Escaping his brother’s wrath, Jacob went to live with one of his relatives named Laban. Jacob worked for seven years there with the promise that he could marry Rebecca. Then Laban tricked Jacob into marrying her sister Leah. After working for a total of fourteen years, Jacob married both sisters. But Rebecca and her two boys, especially Joseph, were his favorites.
And so Joseph got special treatment. This included a beautiful robe (a coat of many colors or of long sleeves, depending on how you translate it). Joseph basically spied on his brothers and would report their misdeeds to his father. In the Book of Genesis, it says, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Gen. 37). Joseph also told everyone about dreams he had in which all his brothers would bow down before him. Then when Joseph went out to see his brothers one day, they decided to kill him. The oldest, Reuben, spoke up to defend Joseph, and they sold Joseph into slavery instead.
For years Joseph suffered. But he was also brilliant at organizing things. Wherever he went, he would quickly end up in charge. Soon he was managing all Egypt on behalf of the Pharoah. This brings us to the story today. A terrible famine came to the land, and Joseph’s brothers came seeking food in Egypt. They did not recognize their brother. When Joseph saw them, he was so happy. He cried loudly enough for the people in the next room to hear him. He forgave his brothers. “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that, his brothers talked with him” (Gen 45).
We all know stories of people who are not talking to someone that they are supposed to love, to a family member or a friend. This is how the not talking to each other phase ended in the family of Jacob. It ended with this astonishing act of forgiveness. Joseph wept with joy to be reunited with his family. And they began to talk with each other again.
This story reminds us of a few things. Showing a preference for one family member over another undermines the family. It gives us a picture of how important forgiveness is in all human relationships. It also shows how ordinary times together matter. We will not always be together. The people in our families will grow up and move away. Parents get divorced and die. You will find times in the future when you will long to be back at a moment like this, when we are all together celebrating the beginning of the new choir year.
My son Micah was in Camerata Choir at Grace Cathedral. It was a nuisance for us as a family to go to his 3 pm Sunday evensongs. But we never missed a day because we realized how precious those times were and that they would not last forever. I would give almost anything to have just one of those ordinary days back. I hope that you experience the same joy that I did as a choir parent.
I want to share a story about the preciousness of our time together. When we allow ourselves to receive this gift of being together, it allows good times to circle back and become part of our lives again in surprising ways, even after tragedies.
Hans Fantel was an author and music critic for the New York Times. In 1989 he wrote about listening to a reissue of a live recording made January 16, 1938. It was the Vienna Philharmonic playing Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony under the direction of Bruno Walter.
Fantel had attended that performance with his father. This is what he wrote, “We could not know on that winter Sunday that this would turn out to be the last performance of the Vienna Philharmonic before Hitler crushed his homeland to make it part of the German Reich.” “The music, captured that day by the bulky old microphones I remember strung across the stage, was the last to be heard from many of the musicians in the orchestra. They and their country vanished.”
Looking back over so many years, Fantel says, “I could now recognize and appreciate the singular aura of that performance: I could sense its uncanny intensity – a strange inner turmoil quite different from the many other recordings and performances of Mahler’s Ninth I had heard since.”
“This disc held fast an event I had shared with my father: seventy-one minutes out of sixteen years we had together. Soon after, as an ‘enemy of Reich and Führer,’ my father also disappeared into Hitler’s abyss. That’s what made me realize something about the nature of phonographs: they admit no ending. They imply perpetuity… Something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time.”
Today we are welcoming the Johnsons’ into our choir family. Jared, our new Canon for Music, is someone with a deep understanding of how music can transform our souls forever. He also sees that the way we treat each other is practice for what kind of relationship we will have in the future.
The Persian mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) wrote a poem about Joseph. He writes, “I have heard that for ten years Joseph never slept at night. That prince kept on praying to God for the sake of his brothers: ‘Oh God, if thou forgives them, so be it. But if not, then I will fill the world with mourning. Punish them not, oh Lord… The [song of] lamentation spread to the celestial spheres and the angels, and the sea of Gentleness bubbled up and then broke the bonds…”
This is a poem about forgiveness and the power of music as we discover what is most beautiful about us.
Let forgiveness, kindness, and self-sacrifice be the story of our families. As a choir family, let us enjoy these days that God has given us together. May the music we make be a blessing to all those who struggle to draw closer to God.
 “We could not know on that winter Sunday that this would turn out to be the last performance of the Vienna Philharmonic before Hitler crushed his homeland to make it part of the German Reich.” “The music, captured that day by the bulky old microphones I remember strung across the stage, was the last to be hear from many of the musicians in the orchestra. They and their country vanished.
Looking back over so many years Fantel says, “I could now recognize and appreciate the singular aura of that performance: I could sense its uncanny intensity – a strange inner turmoil quite different from the many other recordings and performances of Mahler’s Ninth I had heard since.
This disc held fast an event I had shared with my father: seventy-one minutes out of sixteen years we had together. Soon after, as an ‘enemy of Reich and Führer,’ my father also disappeared into Hitler’s abyss. That’s what made me realize something about the nature of phonographs: they admit no ending. They imply perpetuity… Something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time.”
Alex Ross, Listen to This (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) 67-8.
 William C Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983) 137.
So many of you have reached out to us about the fires that destroyed Lahaina Maui this week. I am deeply grateful for your concern and that we have this shared life together which is such a support in times of tragedy. God is so good to give us to each other!
My wife Heidi’s family has lived in Maui since before Captain Cook first arrived in the eighteenth century, so we do have a lot of relatives. So far, none of them seem to have been killed. At the same time, they appear to be traumatized by these horrifying events. Communications systems broke down, and for a while, we were unable to reach some loved ones.
We also have many family members who are firefighters. We are grateful for them. They bravely bear such terrible burdens to be sure that someone is always available to help in times of disaster. So much of value was destroyed. At one time, Lahaina was the capitol of the Kingdom of Hawaii. In particular, Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church, Waiola Church, and the Lahaina Jodo Mission were such important places in our family life.
Every time I pass the site of the old Grace Church on California Street, where the Ritz Carlton Hotel now stands, I wonder what the inside of that church building looked like, what was depicted in the stained glass windows, and how the organ sounded. In April 1906, the congregation worshiped there without knowing it was the last time they would gather there. The building was destroyed by the Earthquake and Great Fire.
Only a couple of years later, our forebears laid the foundation for Grace Cathedral. Every day we benefit from their vision and dedication. We also make our own contribution to this ongoing sign of God’s mercy and love. We too, for our time, are reimagining church with courage, joy, and wonder.
May God bless and keep you this week and always!
“… [N]either death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus…” (Mt. 13).
1. Hi Barbie! In the movie Barbie, everyone says hi to each other. It’s adorable but confusing since they have the same name. When Barbie first leaves her home in the matriarchal paradise of Barbieland and arrives in Venice Beach she gets relentlessly harassed. We have become attached to her and it feels heartbreaking. Near the end of the film a character named Gloria summarizes the contradictions of being a girl or woman today.[i]
“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.”
“… You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line… And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault. I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us…”
Behind this frustration lies a desire for human dignity, true equality and respect for all people. At the same time we see deep divisions in society over gender roles. Senator Josh Hawley writes that there is, “No menace to this nation greater than the collapse of American manhood.”[ii] He blames this problem on the control exerted by “the American Left” over the press, universities and politics. Climate change. The economy. Inequality. Homelessness. Racism. Wars. Malicious computer codes from foreign governments. And a United States senator believes the problem is that men don’t feel good enough about themselves?
It turns out that attitudes about gender and masculinity are deeply correlated with how we vote. A July survey even carried the title “The Best Way to Find Out if Someone Is a Trump Voter? Ask Them What They Think about Manhood.” How can Americans disagree so profoundly about the value of equality when it is so central to our culture? The answer is simple and short. Tradition.
To treat people fairly with respect to gender would mean a departure from the status quo. Many of us are not ready for this change. It can be summarized in one of that survey’s questions, “Traditional family structure with a wage-earning father and a homemaking mother best equips children to succeed.”[iii] Although too few Americans were ever able to afford this kind of life, this is what many believe God demands of us.
2. At the heart of the issue lies the question of how we read the Bible. The central prayer and statement of faith in Judaism is the Shema. Shema means to hear. The prayer begins, “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord is One…”[iv] Jesus refers to this when a young lawyer asks him about the greatest commandment (Mk. 12:29-30).[v] Jesus explains we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as our self. This should be the basis for how we interpret the Bible.
God is one. We have difficulty comprehending this. There is no one, there is no thing, that is like God. God is utterly unique. We may say that God is like the universe, the laws of physics, the ocean, a trusted friend, a judge, a mother but we cannot compare God to anything else in our experience without being more wrong than right. And partly for this reason, God remains hidden to us.
And yet there is still hope that we might gain wisdom about God. The German reformer Martin Luther said that the Bible is not just simply the word of God. It becomes God’s word when the Holy Spirit inspires the reader. Not all scripture is created equal. But different parts of the Bible, at different times in our life and over history, help us both to understand God and God’s hiddenness.
Wednesday night at our Vine service Dana one of our dear Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence read this morning’s story about Leah and Rachel. Dana wondered aloud, “whatever does this mean?” Jacob has traded his inheritance for a bowl of stew. With his mother’s help he tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for his brother. Running away he joins the household of his relative Laban.
Laban has two daughters: Leah has lovely eyes, and younger Rachel is graceful and beautiful like Barbie. Jacob agrees to work for seven years if he could be allowed to marry Rachel. And so the seven years pass, “and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen. 29:15-28). After a great feast Laban tricks Jacob into sleeping with Leah, and then makes him work seven more years to be married to both sisters, or that women are of secondary importance to men
From my perspective it is impossible for me to interpret this as an endorsement of the wage-earning/home-making model of family. The story of Leah and Rachel does not mean we should have two spouses, or that we should work really hard so that we can buy another human being. It does not warn against being fooled into sleeping with the wrong person or against falling in love.
What does this mean to me today? It is part of a long story about how the people of God through a series of individual actions are saved from famine, then fall into slavery and finally are set free. But this morning it also serves as a kind of allegory for the kind of ideal society we think we want and the one which we actually have. We live in a world both of our dreams for how things could be and how things actually are. Both of these matter and have continuing value.
In the end of the story Rachel dies as the family is traveling and they bury her by the side of the road. When Leah dies Jacob buries her in his family plot where he will be interred. It seems as if he really embraced the one he did not initially choose. He learned to love.
God is one. God is incomparable. In God’s kingdom everyone is beloved without exception. Jesus tries through different parables to show us what God’s work is, what God’s kingdom is like. It is small like a mustard seed but has a huge effect so that all the birds of the air can have a home. It is tiny and hidden like yeast but makes what it becomes part of, truly itself. Yeast makes bread, bread. God’s kingdom makes human beings, humane. The church makes us the saints we intend to become.
God’s reign has tremendous value like a hidden treasure or the greatest pearl and it is worth giving everything you have for it. God’s kingdom is like a net gathering what is good and bad in us altogether.
Exactly forty-nine years ago yesterday a seed was planted, a loaf of bread was leavened when the first women were ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. Known as the Philadelphia Eleven, they were ordained by retired bishops before women’s ordination had been officially approved by the national church. Two of my teachers Suzanne Hiatt and Carter Hayward were among these brave women. Barbara Harris was the Senior Warden of The Church of the Advocate where this took place. She later became my bishop in Massachusetts.
These women were my teachers and mentors. We talked about what they went through. Growing up they were told that being a priest isn’t what girls do. Decisions about their future were entirely in the hands of men. They received threats. People called them terrible vulgar names, refused to receive communion from them, belittled and humiliated them in every way.
They were a diverse group with very different politics, but they bravely opened a new door for us to live in a way more faithful to God. One said, “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.”[vi] And that is what they did (for seven years, seven more, seven more, seven more, seven more, seven more and then seven more). It breaks my heart that their dreams for equality still have not been realized.
Why are women not receiving equal pay? This is in part because the largest Christian denominations in America still exclude women from being leaders and teach that our gender makes us unfit for particular roles in society. We try to be polite about this but the time has come to speak honestly about the role of women in America. It is not the will of God for women to be second class citizens in society. Perhaps this new society in which every person is treated with equal dignity and has equal opportunities has always been your life’s dream. Or perhaps it is not what you would have chosen but are coming to love anyway. Can we learn to love what we imagine and also still cherish what is real? Can we abandon worries about manhood and stop tying ourselves in knots over whether people like us? Can we be brave and bold in the face of change, so that we can lov
[i] Barbie, Directed by Greta Gerwig, Warner Brothers, 2023.
“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.”
But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.
I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”
[ii] Thomas Edsell, “Democrats and Republicans Are Living in Different Worlds,” The New York Times, 26 July 2023.
[iv] Shema: “Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai in One! Blessed is God’s name; His glorious kingdom is for ever and ever! And you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Also see, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shema_Yisrael#:~:text=The%20Shema%20has%20also%20been,thereby%20concluding%20the%20day%27s%20prayers.
[v] Jesus answered, ‘The first is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
When I think about Grace Cathedral and the spirit and support that have kept us strong, I cannot help but be aware that all around us in this beautiful city, things are not the way we want them to be.
Two San Francisco hotels account for 9% of the hotel rooms in the city, the massive Westfield Mall on Market Street, and other owners of downtown businesses are leaving the keys on the counter for the bankers and walking away from billions of dollars of investments. Dozens of familiar businesses are simply abandoning the city as we experience layoffs and shocking rates of vacancies in commercial real estate.
The struggles of those who suffer the most in this city continue to ripple outwards, and we seem to have lost our way when meeting people’s most basic needs for housing, clothing, safety, and respect. When we travel, people ask, “Is it really as bad as they say it is in San Francisco?”
In this country, young people are experiencing a mental health epidemic. Older people struggle with a debilitating crisis of meaning as work becomes increasingly detached from what humanizes us. Many people have simply given up on ever having career employment ever again. Our elders feel abandoned and alone. Suicide and addiction claim ever-increasing numbers of lives.
We despair over the damage we are doing to the planet, ongoing wars overseas, the persistence of prejudice at home, and the state of politics in America.
This is what a spiritual crisis looks like. We have forgotten the mystery of our existence, the miracle of our lives, the beauty surrounding us, the God who always calls us to return.
At Grace Cathedral, when we talk about our vision of a spiritually alive world, we have in mind Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom or Realm of God, a world in which every person feels love and has the chance to do the ministry that each of us was created to do. That is the world that we imagine and that we are working to bring into existence along with other communities in our society.
When we talk about the particular part of this vision that is the cathedral’s responsibility, we refer to our mission which is to reimagine church with courage, joy, and wonder. The modern world desperately needs parts of our tradition, but not all of it. Every generation must decide what God is calling us to pass on.
Right now is a crucial moment for us. People in this wounded city come to us during worship, yoga, sound bath, and many events. People in this damaged world have been finding us online. We touch the lives of thousands of people every month, and we need to learn more about these new friends and how they might experience God’s grace in our community.
In this year of poetry, I have been thinking about a poem from Gwendolyn Brooks’ called “One Needs a Teller at a Time Like This.”
One wants a Teller in a time like this.
One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown,
To bear enormous business all alone.
One cannot walk this winding street with pride,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.
One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:
Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch cold.
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School.
Be patient, time brings all good things – (and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?) –
Behold, Love’s true, and triumphs, and God’s actual.
The world needs to know that God is actual… that God is acting, and that God is so interleaved into our inner life and the outer world that it makes no sense to question the reality of God.
At the end of the summer, we will be re-embarking on a strategic planning process for the cathedral. I pray that you will help us reimagine church and re-state the good news of Jesus as we have received it for this new time.
May God bless and keep you wherever you find yourself as you read these words.
1. What is faith? This may be the most important question of our time. This week the indictment of our former president reminds us how questions of trust underlie every human relationship and institution.[i]
In 1996 Mary Doria Russell published a science fiction novel called The Sparrow. It imagines a then near future in 2019 when the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program at the Arecibo Observatory discovers sung music coming from near Alpha Centauri. Jesuit priests led by the linguistics scholar Father Emilio Sandoz organize a mission to that world. They travel to Rakhat via newly invented technologies developed from mining asteroids.
With the turn of a page it is suddenly the year 2060. Sandoz seems to be the only survivor and returns to earth. Damaged physically, psychologically and spiritually he tries to answer his superior’s accusations. The reader experiences the story in parallel in two temporal settings both as Sandoz and his friends encounter a whole new form of human-like life, and much later as he explains what went wrong. It is an anthropological pleasure to imagine the language and society of the inhabitants of Rakhat. One almost wants to stop reading there before the inevitable disaster.
Emilio Sandoz grew up surrounded by drug crime in Puerto Rico and first began to be educated by the Jesuits as a teenager. He has always struggled with doubt. As the story unfolds he begins to see the circumstances that brought the team together as more than a coincidence perhaps even a miracle. As he finds his place among the far more social, even herdlike, inhabitants of Rakhat they physically touch him and he discovers a new conviction about God, a kind of ecstasy that fulfills him.
This makes his disappointment so much worse when through his actions everything falls apart and he causes the death of his old friends and new ones. Near the end of the story two priests talk about Sandoz’s struggle with faith. The Father General says, “There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So he breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”
“’So God just leaves?’ John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. ‘Abandons creation?’ ‘No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.’ ‘Matthew 10:29… “Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’ ‘But the sparrow still falls.’”[ii]
These are two different pictures of faith. First, as a kind of disposition which is a grateful response to good things in our life. This attitude is nonetheless vulnerable to suffering. And we might wonder whether the good outbalances the pain. Or second, faith can be regarded as the knowledge of a silent watcher, a loving but invisible companion who is with us, but constrained in the help that can be provided.
2. If someone asked us to describe our faith we might say something like that. But today the Gospel offers a very different and surprising kind of answer to the question “what is faith.”
My friend Matt Boulton likes to describe the Christian year as divided in half. There are six months of holidays from Advent through Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Then six months of ordinary time which begins now. He says this rhythm is like inhaling and exhaling or like the tide coming in and going out again. Ordinary, does not mean commonplace, it means ordinal as in part of a series. In this case it means a series of episodes from the Bible that teach us how to live and give us a framework for interpreting our experience.[iii]
The first eight chapters of the Gospel of Matthew describe Jesus’ birth, his later baptism, temptation in the wilderness, the calling of his followers (the fisherman on the sea of Galilee), then his first sermon and stories of healing. In chapter nine Jesus invites the one who seems to be the last of the twelve disciples, a tax collector named Matthew.
Imagine Matthew’s daily life charging taxes on goods going to market. The author of the gospel uses the word tax collector as a synonym for sinner. People hate tax collectors for three reasons. First, taxes were cripplingly high. Second, these taxes were levied by, and used to pay, an occupying army that punished and crucified the local people. Tax collectors collaborate in this oppression. Finally, tax collectors extorted more money than required and did this for the sake of enriching themselves.
Jesus immediately befriends and shares a meal with Matthew and “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mt. 9). I wonder what the other disciples thought about this. Matthew seems to be last one chosen, the twelfth disciple. The pharisees, a group seeking to purify the religion of the time, deride Jesus for the company he keeps. Jesus does not make the argument that these people are not really sinners. Instead he says that like a physician he has come not to heal the healthy but the sick.
The first readers of this story would know about the purity rules in the books of Leviticus and Numbers in the Old Testament. Verses there say that menstruating women should be regarded as unclean and corpses too. Anyone and anything, including furniture like beds or chairs, that a bleeding woman touched would also become unclean, and require a period of isolation and ritual cleansing.[iv]
Jesus in the very act of responding to criticisms of the sinners attracted to him, is interrupted by a leader of the synagogue. This man kneels and begs for him to heal his daughter saying, “lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Mt. 9). As Jesus goes with all of his disciples following him, a woman approaches to touche his clothes. It’s amazing that there are words spoken in the Bible that we still use today. Haimorreow is our word for hemorrhage and means to bleed. For twelve years this woman has been bleeding. For twelve years she has been unclean, isolated and literally untouchable.
We hear a little of her internal dialogue. She says to herself, “If only I touch his cloak, I will be made well” (Mt. 9). The word for “made well” is sōzō related to the word sōtēr for savior. It does not just mean to be physically healed. It means to save, preserve, heal or rescue.
Imagine the drama of this situation. An unclean woman without permission goes through a crowd surrounding a great and holy teacher, past his disciples, through the law that forbids it, and in effect desecrates him. The disciples must have been stunned and wondered what Jesus would say. Jesus does not rebuke her or criticize her actions. He loves her. He commends her boldness. Not only that but rather than taking credit for his healing power, he emphasizes her role in this miraculous healing. He says, “Take heart daughter, your faith has made you well” (Mt. 9).
When Jesus arrives at the synagogue leader’s house everyone knows that touching a dead body makes you unclean. But Jesus takes the girl by the hand and she gets up. The tax collector, the hemorrhaging woman and the synagogue leader come from entirely different stations of life but they teach us that faith is boldness. It is the conviction that our more daring efforts will be met by a loving God.
During Pride Month it is especially important to linger for a moment here. We also need to recognize the way that Jesus interprets scripture. Jesus is not a prisoner to a simplistic and literalist reading of ancient texts. Jesus uses one text, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” from Hosea 6:6 to interpret other texts, those having to do with sinners, menstruating women and corpses. In our time we need to be more diligent in reading the Bible in ways that nurture and love LGBTQ+ and all people.
So for Matthew faith means more than just gratitude for the goodness of our existence. It refers to more than just a silent but compassionate watcher in our lives. Faith is a boldness in trusting God even when we cannot perfectly understand what is happening.
The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes, “This is Abraham’s faith: Faith which, in hope against hope, steps out beyond human capacity across the chasm which separates God and man, beyond the visibility of the seen and the invisibility of the unseen, beyond subjective and objective possibility… to the place where he is supported only by the Word of God.”[v]
This week I received a letter from a dear friend who has been going through four terrible family tragedies this year. During the last of these tragedies he describes time moving so slowly, and about how his mind became his own worst enemy. He writes about being unable to pray, about screaming a bad word at the top of his lungs when he was home or in the car alone.
He says that because he has faith in God, Jesus, the church he kept coming to this place, to Grace Cathedral even though it brought up a tidal wave of feeling and grief. But over time things got better. He heard a setting of “Ave Maria” sung by a visiting choir. He began stopping by “Our Lady of Flowers” the photographic image of Mary in the South Transept, and for an instant he had a kind of vision in which Mary held his family member on her lap. Then in a sermon he was reminded about a dream that the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich had. In it she held a hazelnut in her hand which represented everything God had created. She worried about its destruction. But God reassured her saying that he would draw all things to himself. My friend concluded saying, “Mary seems to be my path back to mending my relationship with God.”
What is faith? This may be the most important question of our life. May there always be the faith of gratitude for our existence. May we begin to experience God as the quiet, compassionate witness to our life. But above all, my dear ones, let us be audacious and bold in the places where we are supported only by the Word of God. In the beginning God was everywhere and everything. Lay your hand on her and she will live. Take heart daughter yo
[i] Answers surround us about faith and trustworthiness, in the Senate, newspapers, laboratories and our closest relationships. In his book Faith on Earth Richard R. Niebuhr studies Luke’s question “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth.” Will human life end when no one can any longer be expected to keep their word? https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/10/world/australia/trump-indictment-world-reactions.html
[ii] Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (NY: Villard, 1996) 478.
[iii] Matthew Boulton, “Go: SALT’s Commentary for the Second Sunday after Pentecost,” SALT 5 June 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2023/6/3/go-salts-commentary-on-second-sunday-after-pentecost
[iv] Leviticus 12:1-8; 15:19-30 and Numbers 19:11-13.
[v] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskins (NY: Oxford University Press, 1975) 142.
Jesus says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28).
What am I? What is? Every morning during my first year in seminary, I meditated in the ancient wood-paneled chapel a couple of doors down from my room in Divinity Hall. Only sparsely furnished with pews and a lectern, it looked more like a 19th-century courtroom than a church. That fall, the red maple leaves on the tree outside were my burning bush. Professor Peter Gomes would give the orientation to new students there. He talked about how in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his “Divinity School Address” to the graduating seniors there.
Emerson began by saying, “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers… Night brings no gloom to the heart… Through the transparent darkness, the stars pour their spiritual rays. The man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy… The mystery of our nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward has not yielded one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world in which our senses converse… What am I? What is?”
As a Unitarian minister, among students, family, and friends, Emerson also addressed this question to his former professors. It had only been thirteen years since the formation of the Unitarian Association (1825). These Unitarian leaders, his teachers, had objected to the rigid predestination of New England Congregational churches as overly pessimistic and focused on sin. They argued that believing God had already determined who would be saved would undercut the motivation for people to act morally. Above all, they saw doctrines like the trinity as not rational and sought to modernize the church.
In this environment, Emerson criticized both the emerging church and the old one referring to the “universal decay and now almost death of faith.” Even in 1838, people worried about the church dying. Emerson said that churches were overly preoccupied with miracles (“the word Miracle as pronounced by the Christian churches gives a false impression; it is monster”). He thought churches were too inclined to discount sources of truth outside of the Bible. Christians were so focused on the divinity of Christ that they overlooked the way that all people are images of God. Emerson’s teachers viciously turned on him for this, humiliating him in the press.
Near the end of this address to future ministers, Emerson describes hearing a dry, academic, meaningless sermon. He said that he could not tell whether or not the preacher had actually laughed or wept or loved or lived. Emerson writes, “A snowstorm was falling around us [outside]. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the contrast in looking at him and then out the window into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” Emerson passionately cared about helping people to move more closely to God. This involves understanding who God is.
2. This morning, we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the only day on the church calendar dedicated to a doctrine rather than a person or event. This is not merely an academic matter. This conversation must be practical, having to do with real life. At stake is the very picture of God and determines how we pray, live with each other, and understand ourselves.
So what is the trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Where does this idea come from, and how is it useful? Above all, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the Trinity as a mystery. It can, “neither be known by unaided human reason nor cogently demonstrated by reason after it has been revealed.” Despite this pessimism, we can grow in our knowledge of God through study, conversation, and action. We cannot know God perfectly, but the family of trinitarian metaphors can help us
The word trinity does not appear in the Bible or in early church writings. But the tension between the belief that God is one (from the Old Testament) and the idea that God is especially revealed in Jesus, lies at the very heart of Christianity. We see this balance between monotheism and the uniqueness of Christ in recurring twofold and threefold patterns in the New Testament. It is true of our gospel today in which Jesus, for the only time, talks about baptizing the nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28)).
In the Bible, we read of people encountering God directly in the person of Jesus. But we also hear Jesus speak of God as distinct from himself (such as when he prays to God or describes God as the one who sent him). God is both one and twofold. Early followers also had encounters with the Spirit (such as at Pentecost when God’s power descended on the disciples). Jesus talks about an entity separate from himself and God. In John, he calls this the Advocate, a spirit that will guide and challenge us over time. This spirit was present in his baptism.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are not three different gods, but three aspects of how God is both internally (ad intra) in God’s own self and for the world (ad extra). God is not just up there but in here and everywhere. God is creating, sustaining, and renewing all parts of the conscious and unconscious world. God never stops seeking a deeper relationship with us.
Margaret Miles points out that “From the earliest writings, Christians affirmed that Christ the Redeemer was God not a lower order of being. The earliest surviving sermon after the New Testament began: ‘Brethren, we ought to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as the judge of the living and dead.’ The earliest martyrdom account, that of Polycarp, said, ‘It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ… For him, being the son of God we adore, but the martyrs we cherish.’ The earliest outsider comment on the Christian Church, that of the provincial governor Pliny, described Christians gathering before sunrise ‘singing a hymn to Christ as though to a god.’”
After the scattered twofold and threefold pictures of God in the Bible, the first generation of theologians called the Apostolic Fathers writing in the first century, often refer to Christ as “our God” and use the same threefold pattern of language. They are not yet writing about the Trinity.
This changed in the second century with the Apologists. This group of writers sought to make connections between the Christian worldview and the philosophy and culture of the Greco-Roman world. They tried to show that Christianity was not a form of atheism, and that pagan philosophies could be harmonized with it. Just in the same way that we might make our thought a reality in the world, they talked about logos, logic, rationality, and order that comes from God. They also used the metaphor of a child to show that Jesus is not something separate or alien from God.
Finally, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 AD), in the third century, was the first one to use the term “trinity.” He was also the first Western theologian to write primarily in Latin rather than Greek. God consists of different persons but one substance. Tertullian uses metaphors like a plant’s shoot, root, and fruit. He talks about different modes of being in God in the way that we talk about different phases of H2O as it passes from liquid to solid or gas.
Over the centuries, Western theology tended to emphasize the unity of God, and Eastern theology highlighted the distinctions between the three persons. St. Augustine uses various metaphors. He writes that the trinity is the one who loves, the beloved, and the power of love. The Trinity is the memory, intelligence, and will we see in our inner life. Augustine believes that everything created by God preserves this threefold pattern. C.S. Lewis says that God is the one we pray to, the desire for God in our hearts, and the one who accompanies us along the way.
3. Together today, we are part of a conversation that has stretched over centuries in vastly different regions and societies using strikingly different languages, images, and metaphors. This expanding dialogue takes us to regions that none of these original authors could have imagined. Ideas and texts separated by centuries help us to understand who God could be for us.
For three reasons, I love the experience of God as Trinity. First, the trinity reminds us that God is a mystery – not a simple single entity but three unified persons drawn by love, creating an otherwise impossible harmony. Second, the trinity reminds us that who we are, is the series of relationships we have with others. We are not individuals but a chorus of the voices who cared for us. Gratitude, generosity, and giving lie at the heart of all things. Third, God is love. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, God is always reaching out to us and from within us.
I have spent many hours imagining Ralph Waldo Emerson in that chapel which is so holy to me. He desired so deeply that every person should become acquainted with God for themselves. To those graduating seminarians, he says, “Yourself, a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men firsthand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you… but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.” May we also do the same.
What am I? What is? We are wrapped and hidden in the mystery of God. We are relational; each of us contains multitudes. We will never be separated from the one who created us and calls us closer every day, until we will meet, at the end of the age.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) 100-1.
 Ibid., 108.
 Ibid., 109. Robert D. Richardson claims that Barzillai Frost was the preacher to whom Emerson refers in the “Divinity School Address.” We walked past Barzillai Frost’s house (and the house where Thoreau died) on Main Street about a dozen times last week as we stayed in Concord, Massachusetts.
Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 289.
 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Cited in Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 43.
 Twofold patterns are found in Rom. 8:11, 2 Cor. 4:14, Gal. 1:1, Eph. 1:20, 1 Tim. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:21, 2 John 1:13. Threefold patterns are in Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 6:11, 12:4ff, 13:13, Gal. 3:11-14, Heb. 10:29 and 1 Pet.1:2. The Trinitarian Controversy tr. and ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) 2.
 Matthew Boulton, “Relationships Are Who We Are: SALT’s Commentary for Trinity Sunday,” SALT, 30 May 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/6/1/relationships-are-who-we-are-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-trinity-sunday
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 44.
 These Apostolic Fathers include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Polycarp, and Papias, the Letter of Barnabas, the Letter to Diognetus, 2 Clement and the Didache. The Trinitarian Controversy tr. and ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980) 3.
 These theologians included Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian and Theophilus of Antioch. Ibid., 3-4.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address,” Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) 113.
 “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.
View the sermon on YouTube.
Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14).
Anthropologists estimate that on average over the last five thousand years, during any hundred year period, in about ninety-six of those years men fought wars somewhere in the world.1 Despite this, across the centuries Peter speaks to us. He whispers in our ear, “do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3).
1. How will we defend our hope in this violent and broken world? A couple of people have asked me why we read Caroline Alexander’s translation of the entire text (15,693 lines) of Homer’s Iliad all day yesterday here at the Cathedral. This epic poem was composed in one of the earliest examples of phonetic Greek some time between 750-700 BC. Homer relied on storytelling traditions about the real Trojan War which scholars estimate was fought in 1250 BC.2
The Iliad does not describe the abduction (or seduction) of Helen which started the war. It does not tell the story of how Greek soldiers gained entrance through the gates hidden inside a giant wooden horse or about how the city was sacked. Instead Homer writes about the events of a roughly two week period in the tenth and final year of the stalemated siege of Troy. It is a war that no one seems to want to fight anymore. Why does the war persist? For three reasons: pride, fate and fury.
Achilles, the greatest warrior, whose mother is Thetis goddess of the sea, refuses to fight after his slave girl Briseïs is taken by his inept, whining commander Agamemnon. Agamemnon justifies his action complaining, “[D]o you intend – while you yourself have a prize – that I should just sit here without one?”3 If these embarrassing comparisons of status could have been avoided the war would easily have been won.
Again later the war seems about to conclude, to be satisfied by a duel between Menelaus and Paris, but in the last second Paris is rescued by the goddess Aphrodite, and the hostilities continue. Homer writes, “So spoke (Zeus) the son of Kronos and woke
the incessant battle, and the gods went down to enter the fighting, with purposes opposed.”4 Fate expressed by the god’s intervention makes the conflict intractable.
Finally, Achilles does not respect his commander and questions the very reasons for fighting. Like the boxer Muhamad Ali in his comment about the Vietcong, Achilles says, “the Trojan spearmen… to me have done nothing.”5 He knows that he will be killed if he goes to war, but gets drawn into battle out of rage when his dear friend Patroclus is killed. Priam the father of his adversary foresees his grandchild being thrown from the walls, his daughters sent into slavery and his own death. He begs his son not to fight, “Come then inside the wall my child… oh take pity on me…”6
Both Achilles and Hector know that they will be killed if they go to battle. They understand that the war is not worth their lives and yet they persist. Wrath is the first word in this ancient epic and it is foolish pride, capricious chance and pure anger that drive the forces of war.
This is remarkable. The book uses the conventions of heroic epic to undermine the very idea that wars should be fought at all. It raises universal questions: is a warrior ever justified in defying his commander? How do wars start and why do they continue even when all the combatants want them to end? Can giving one’s life for country sometimes be a betrayal of one’s family? Is dying gloriously and being remembered worth it?7
Achilles says, “ I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and gall which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than dripping honey.”8
After killing his enemy Menelaus observes, “There is satiety in all things, in sleep, and love-making, in the loveliness of singing and the innocent dance…” but in war the Trojans cannot be satisfied.9
Why did we gather here through the dark night to study this ancient epic? We read The Iliad yesterday to deepen our connection to each other and to all humans throughout history. Together we studied the human heart. We tried to honestly face the pride, pettiness, accident and anger that prevent us from living at peace with each other in this beautiful world.
2. You may be wondering what this has to do with the way of Jesus. The apostle Paul explains this after he escaped a mob that was trying to kill him in Thessalonica and arrives in Athens. He debates Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, two Greek schools of
thought concerned with how we should live. He meets people who, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17). And he gives an accounting of the hope that is within him. Let me briefly explain what these philosophers believed.
Epicurus moved to Athens in 341 BC. Epicureans philosophers believed that the goal of human life is happiness, the avoidance of physical pain and peace of mind.10 They thought that fear of death and punishment are the primary cause of the anxiety that distorts our inner life and gives rise to irrational desires. They believed that we could become happy by changing our habits of thought. To do this they recommended avoiding politics and religion (because they thought that the gods do not care about us). They regarded sex and marriage as unimportant, but friendship as everything.
Stoic philosophy began to develop around the year 300 BC.11 They offered a far more developed picture of God as a physical entity. For them God is eternal reason, the intelligence bringing forth creation, the life force that animates all beings. This God is not like the unpredictable, capricious Greek gods, but orderly, rational and providential.
On the Areopagus, the hill dedicated to Ares the Greek god of war, Paul addresses students of Homer, philosophers and everyone else. He refers to finding an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god,” and promises to tell them about the real God who they do not yet know. He explains that God is not an idol or a physical object in the world. God creates and also sets limits to everything. Our existence, our breath, the space we take up and everything we have comes from God. And yet God is also personal. We have a longing for God, and so we search and perhaps even find God, because God is “not far from each one of us” (Acts 17).
On this Mother’s Day we hear how Jesus mothers his friends even as they gather for the last time. He teaches exactly this, that our relation to God is a personal one. Jesus exclaims I will not leave you orphaned, isolated by yourself. But the paraclete (which means the one who goes beside you), the spirit of truth, will be with you. Jesus says, you will be in me and I will be in you. This presence of God will help us to keep God’s commandments. This is important. We are not rewarded for keeping commandments by God’s intimacy. God’s presence makes it possible for us to be agents of peace.
The genius of Christianity is that it recognizes that pride, competition, fury and pettiness put us in impossible conflict but that God sustains us even through the worst forms of suffering. In fact, the suffering of God helps to make our pain bearable.
3. This week with a group I listened to a friend, who I will call Ben, read his memoirs.12 Ben described going out to the movies in Southern California in the 1970’s with his wife and five year old son, seeing a pay phone with a large phonebook hanging on a chain. On a whim he called the Steins, the family that used to share a duplex with he and his mother back in Philadelphia. Growing up the other family seemed to have everything: a television, a car and a dad who was part of that boy’s life.
There was often conflict between the boys. One day as children, Ben thought that his neighbor had told the teacher about him swearing on the playground. And so later Ben secretly threw away his book bag and did not say anything as the boy’s mother beat him. Years later Ben goes and visits that boy’s parents in Los Angeles with his own wife and son. The mother says she always thought he would grow up to be a murderer. Her own son had joined the army, been sent to Vietnam and become addicted to drugs. He could never really get a career going.
Ben called the now grown up neighbor. The two had a superficial conversation, until the neighbor expressed his surprise that Ben had not apologized for his behavior when they were children. The neighbor hung up and they never spoke again. Ben did not show any remorse about what happened in the past, but he seems to be still carrying this burden for harming his friend. After his story our group of friends talked about why some people succeed and others do not. But the real question is how are we to live with each other and our past.
In The Iliad’s world all we have is our ego and it is in competition with every other ego, and there is nothing to temper our fury. The bickering and unreliable gods of the Epicureans and the nameless impersonal power of the Stoic’s God cannot help. But my friends every person you meet shines with the light of God. Being together each week we are learning to nourish the hope within us. This is the hope that we can seek and find God, that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, that through the turmoil and enmity of this world, God is directing us. God is loving us and mothering us.
“Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3).
1 “If we took any period of a hundred years in the last five thousand, it has been calculated, we could expect, on average, ninety-four of these years to be occupied with large-scale conflicts in one or more parts of the world.” Paraphrase from Tevor Bryce, Life and Society in the Hittite World (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004) 98, by Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) xi.
2 Homer, The Iliad tr. Caroline Alexander (NY:Harper Collins, 2015) xxx.
3 Ibid., 5.
4 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 405 (Book Twenty, line 30).
5 Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) 20.
6 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 436.
7 Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War (NY: Penguin Books, 2009) 14-15.
8 Ibid., 378.
9 Homer, The Iliad tr. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 288. Homer, The Iliad tr. Caroline Alexander (NY:Harper Collins, 2015) 282.
10 Konstan, David, “Epicurus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/epicurus/>.
11 The stoa is the porch were classes met. Durand, Marion, Simon Shogry, and Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/stoicism/>.
12 Tuesday 9 May 2023 at 7:30 p.m.
After a nine-month search process Jared Johnson has agreed to serve as our next Canon Director for Music starting on July 1. Jared will direct all aspects of the cathedral’s music programs and will serve as a member of the cathedral’s chapter.
Jared will be moving here from Columbia, South Carolina where he has served as canon organist and choirmaster of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral since 2003. He directs the Cathedral Choristers, which features advanced choirs for boys, girls, and young men.
Jared was the music director for the Royal School of Church Music Carolina Course at Duke in 2019, and he will serve as music director of the Saint Thomas Girl Chorister Course this summer. He has performed organ recitals in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. His recordings appear on the Pro Organo and JAV labels. Jared also helped to establish the Cathedral Music School for underserved students at Trinity.
I know that you will appreciate Jared’s musicianship, professionalism and warmth. Earlier this week, he said, “I am thrilled and humbled to be joining the Grace Cathedral community as your next canon director of music. Grace Cathedral is a landmark for excellence in music, and it will be my privilege to build on the good work that so many have done before me. The opportunity to lead such an historic choir in an environment of creativity and welcome is very rare, and I am excited to begin this work. I look forward to being part of the community and working together with you to help advance the work of Grace Cathedral.”
Jared is a graduate of Oberlin College, with degrees in English and organ performance. After graduation, he received a Watson Fellowship for conducting in London. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale University. Jared and his wife, psychologist Erin Johnson, and third-grade twins, Charlie and Sam, will be moving to San Francisco this summer.
I am grateful to the members of the search team, led by Vice Dean Greg Kimura and president of the choir guild, Asheley Linnenbach, to the Choir of Men and Boys and to the cathedral’s entire music department. Their leadership this year has been extraordinary. I am very proud of the quality of music at Grace Cathedral this year and feel especially grateful to Christopher Keady, our interim director and Gabriel Fanelli, our choirmaster who both served so faithfully. This search took place as we prepared for this summer’s ambitious choir tour to Austria – the first choir tour since England in 2016.
I am deeply grateful for the warm spirit of the cathedral community as we welcome Jared to Grace Cathedral.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.. (Lk. 24).
What are you failing to recognize in your life? This week the mother of sixteen year old Ralph Yarl sent him to pick up his twin brothers at their friends’ house. He went to the door at Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace. The 84 year old white homeowner Andrew Lester shot him in the head and arm. Maybe he would not have done this if Ralph were white. Ralph had to go to three different homes before someone finally agreed to help, but then, only if he would lie down on the ground with his hands up.1
Twenty year old Kaylin Gillis was shot and killed when a car she was driving in mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway.2 Armed to the teeth, Americans keep hearing how dangerous our society is. And then, out of fear, we fail to recognize each other.3
An Australian named Glenn Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia.” It combines the words solace, desolation and nostalgia to describe, “an intense desire” to take care of the places that give us comfort or solace. It also refers to the pain that comes from the destruction of natural places.4 I feel this suffering profoundly as I watch the ongoing death of the forests here in Northern California. According to aerial surveys 36 million California trees died in 2022 (that is three times as many as 2021).5
We yearn for places of wholeness, for relationships with each other that nurture and heal. We long to be recognized for who we are, as children of God. This morning we are going to study one of the most formative stories in the Bible and how a twentieth century poet came to recognize Jesus in her own life.
1. Over the year many people have invited me to prisons, shelters, emergency rooms and hospice unit, into places of absolute despair. This is where Jesus comes to us. In the Book of Luke, Jesus does not first meet the most famous disciples (like Mary Magdalene or Peter). He does not appear at the tomb, the temple, or Herod’s palace. Instead he walks with two of the most ordinary people (Cleopas and Anonymous) to Emmaus a town that is so insignificant archaeologists are not sure where it is.
Jesus speaks with two utterly demoralized people, two disciples who gave up everything to follow someone they loved and then saw that person tortured to death by the state. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him. When he asks what they are talking about, they stop, stand there and look sad. This is the same word (skuthrōpoi) that Matthew uses when he teaches that when you fast do not look dismal, so that people can admire you for fasting.6
These friends are so upset, so wrapped up in their grief that they cannot believe he does know what happened to them. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there…” (Lk. 24)? The Greek word (paroikeis) means to live alongside but separate from the people who belong in a place. Jesus is a stranger to them because he does not inhabit their world of grief.
The friends tell Jesus all the things that happened. This feels even more tragic because they do not believe. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” They mention the women who did not find the body at the tomb. Even though the women describe angels who said Jesus was alive, the friends still could not believe.
Jesus explains scriptures and prophecies. His two friends still impossibly do not recognize him. Finally, Jesus takes bread and breaks it with them and in an instant they really see him. They exclaim in one of my favorite lines in the Bible, “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…”
My friend Matt Boulton proposes three reasons that Jesus’ friends do not recognize him. First, cannot see through their tears. Sorrow and despair might must make it impossible for them. Second, perhaps this sadness has caused them to turn in on themselves, to be self-absorbed, like a house with the window shades drawn. Finally, it could be because Jesus is somehow different, so new in resurrected life that they cannot see him.7
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) regarded this last reason as most compelling. It gave him the chance to write about the difference between Jesus’ earthly life and his resurrected life. So what does Barth think happened when Jesus broke bread with his friends? In that moment Jesus came to them in a form, “in which he could never leave them again… He could never be to them a mere figure of the past… The limitation of the past had burst.”8 Jesus encountered them, “emerging from the past as a figure of the present, alive forevermore…”
This is who Jesus can be for us too, if only we will recognize him. In another book Barth writes that, ”believing is not an obscure and indeterminate feeling. It is a clear hearing,
apperceiving, thinking and then speaking and doing. It is a clear human act… believing… does not control its object.” God does not exist for us; we exist for God. And so Barth calls faith, “an irruption into this reality.” It is the “removing of a barrier” to true seeing.9
2. The poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) has written about the barrier to believing that she experienced. It had to do with despair in the face of suffering. In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821-1881) book The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan exclaims, “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.”10 This kind of hatred of human cruelty and suffering consumed Levertov. In England, her Hasidic father had converted and become an Anglican priest, but Levertov stopped participating in church as a teenager. She migrated to the United States in 1947 and became an anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear activist.
Then in her fifties Levertov began writing a poem called “Agnus Dei” or “Lamb of God.” The poem goes like this, “… sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack / the means of self-protection, having / neither rage nor claws, / venom nor cunning… This pretty creature… / leaper in air for delight of being, who finds in astonishment / four legs to land on, the grass / all it knows of the world?”
She goes on, “What terror lies concealed / in strangest words, O Lamb / of God that taketh away / the Sins of the World: an innocence / smelling of ignorance, / born in bloody snowdrifts, / licked by forebearing / dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together? // God then, / encompassing all things, is defenceless? Ominpotence / has been tossed away, / reduced to a wisp of damp wool?”
“… And we / frightened, bored, wanting / only to sleep ‘til catastrophe / has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us, / wanting then / to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony… // is it implied that we / must protect this perversely weak / animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings // suppose there is milk to be found in us? / Must hold in our icy hearts / a shivering God?” “So be it. / Come, rag of pungent / quiverings, /dim star. / Let’s try /if something human still / can shield you, / spark / of remote light.”11
As she struggled with those exact words Levertov found her heart being converted to Jesus. Looking back later she explains, “The experience of writing the poem – the long swim through waters of unknown depth – had also been a conversion process.” She began to see in a new light, that agonizing question about why God does not intervene in suffering.12
Levertov explains that she, “began to see these stumbling blocks as absurd. Why, when the very fact of life itself, of the existence of anything at all is so astounding why… should I withhold my belief in God… until I am able to explain to myself the discrepancy between the suffering of the innocent… and the assertion that God is just and merciful.”13 Writing about the world led Levertov to faith in Christ.
I want to close with the poem Denise Levertov wrote about today’s reading. In this modern world of doubt she seems to be imagining herself in the scene. It is called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez).” “She listens, listens, holding / her breath. Surely that voice / is his – the one / who had looked at her, once, across the crowd, / as no one ever had looked? / Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her// Surely those hands were his, / taking the platter of bread from hers just now? / Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well? //” “Surely that face – ? // The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy. / The man whose body disappeared from its tomb. / The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?” // Those who had brought this stranger home to their table / don’t recognize yet with whom they sit. / But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in, / a young Black servant intently listening, // swings round and sees the light around him / and is sure.”14
My thoughts this week keep returning to the old men who shot the young people who appeared at their houses rather than welcoming them. In our fears over the dissolution of our society and the desolation of the living world, what are we failing to recognize?
The limitation of the past has burst. Jesus emerging from the past will be with us forevermore. Jesus will come to us and not in the way we expect so let us be flexible and imaginative. May we pay attention not just with our eyes but with the hearts that are burning within us.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, stay with us… be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen15
3 Friday night I had dinner with my friend Barbro who is in her eighties. She saw the destruction of Europe, the aftermath of the holocaust and the advent of the nuclear age. And yet war in Ukraine, dehumanizing poverty on the streets of San Francisco, American political polarization and our worsening climate crisis makes her despair. You can hear the pain in her voice. Maybe you feel some of this pain too.
4 The word solastalgia combines the words solace, desolation and nostalgia to describe, “an intense desire for the place where one is resident to be maintained in a state that continues to give comfort or solace.” Dorothy Dean, “Climate Grief and the Secular Spirituality of Earth-Mourning,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring/Summer 2023, 70.
6 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16 NRSV).
7 Matthew Boulton, “Breaking Bread: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 3,” SALT 17 April 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/4/20/breaking-bread-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-3
8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2 The Doctrine of Creation tr. H. Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller (New York; T&T Clark, 1960) 471-3.
9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2 The Doctrine of the Word of God tr. Harold Knight, G.T. Thomson (New York; T&T Clark, 1960) 506.
10 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov tr. Constance Garnett (NY: Modern Library).
11 Denise Levertov, “Agnus Dei,”
Given that lambs
are infant sheep,
that sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws,
venom nor cunning,
is this ‘Lamb of God’?
This pretty creature, vigorous
to nuzzle at milky dugs,
leaper in air for delight of being, who finds in astonishment
four legs to land on, the grass
all it knows of the world?
With whom we would like to play,
whom we’d lead with ribbons, but may not bring
into our houses because
it would spoil the floor with its droppings?
What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, O lamb
of God that taketh away
the Sins of the World: an innocence
smelling of ignorance,
born in bloody snowdrifts,
licked by forebearing
dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together?
encompassing all things, is
has been tossed away,
reduced to a wisp of damp wool?
wanting only to sleep ‘til catastrophe
has raged, clashed, seethed and gone by without us,
to awaken in quietude without remembrance of agony,
we who in shamefaced private hope
had looked to be plucked from fire and given
a bliss we deserved for having imagined it,
is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold in our icy hearts
a shivering God?
So be it.
Come, rag of pungent
Let’s try if something human still
can shield you,
of remote light.”
12 Peggy Rosenthal, “The Conversions of Elizabeth Seton and the Poet Denise Levertov,” Seton Shrine, 21 January 2021. https://setonshrine.org/the-conversions-of-elizabeth-seton-and-the-poet-denise-levertov/
15 The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 124.