“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done” (Jn. 4)!
1. Every day we hear about horrifying violence and misery in Ukraine – trench warfare in freezing rain, missile strikes, civilians tortured and murdered, cities, schools, museums, libraries destroyed, 500 churches and religious sites obliterated.[i] Several hundred thousand people have perished there in just one year.[ii] Lately, trying to understand, I have been reading the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004).
Milosz was about fourteen years old during World War I when the German army invaded Vilnius. He was there with just his mother because his father had been conscripted by the Russians. Later in the Polish-Soviet War in 1919, he and his mother were fired on by troops. Throughout World War II Milosz secretly helped Jewish families to survive. He witnessed Nazi soldiers burning down Warsaw in August 1944.
He writes, “I do not regret those years in Warsaw, which was, I believe, the most agonizing spot in the whole of terrorized Europe. Had I chosen emigration, my life would certainly have followed a very different course. But my knowledge of the crimes which Europe has witnessed in the twentieth century would be less direct, less concrete than it is.”[iii]
For six years after the war Milosz served as a cultural attaché for the People’s Republic of Poland until his outspoken criticisms of the Soviet leadership made it necessary for him to defect to the West. He ended up having a long career at the University of California, Berkeley. Some faculty colleagues were surprised when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980. They did not even know he was a poet. He wrote poetry almost entirely in Polish. Americans could not understand and Polish readers were prevented by censorship from reading it.
He writes as a refugee and an immigrant. “Faithful mother tongue, / I have been serving you. / Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors / so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch / as preserved in my memory…/ You were my native land.” He goes on, “Now, I confess my doubt. / There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life. / For you are a tongue of the debased, / of the unreasonable, hating themselves / even more than they hate other nations, / a tongue of informers, / a tongue of the confused, / ill with their own innocence. //But without you who am I?…”[iv] Milosz persists in this lonely work because he does not want us to forget what happened.
Milosz writes about terrifying destruction and cruelty. “You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime, / And kept a pack of fools around you / To mix good and evil, to blur the line, // Though everyone bowed down before you, / saying virtue and wisdom lit your way… / Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. / You can kill one, but another is born.”[v]
Why would I spend so much time studying this record of human depravity? In part because of Milosz’s deep Christian faith. This belief helps him to see the beauty of the world even in the midst of stark suffering. Let me share his poem “Veni Creator.”
“Come, Holy Spirit, / bending or not bending the grasses, / appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame, / at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow / covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada. / I am only a man: I need visible signs. / I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction. / Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in the church / lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.”
“But I understand that signs must be human, / therefore call one man, anywhere on earth, / not me – after all I have some decency – /and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.”[vi]
2. For Christians that one person who helps us to marvel at God is Jesus. If all we had of the Bible were this one story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman that would be enough. Jesus talks longer to her than to his friends the disciples, or to his family, or in defending himself before the authorities. She is the first person he reveals himself to, the first one to realize who he is. She is the first person to tell others about Jesus, the first preacher. We follow in her footsteps this morning. In a sign of respect let’s call her Leah.
Recently under pressure from the governor’s office, the Florida Department of education lobbied the College Board to remove certain ideas and methodologies from the Advanced Placement course in African American Studies.[vii] One of the most important concepts that was erased is called intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw first articulated this simple idea in 1989. She points out that race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, etc. intersect and uniquely shape our experience. It means that if you are a wealthy, Black, cisgender middle-aged man the world will look different than if you are a Black trans teenager living on the streets.
Of all the people for Jesus to talk to Leah is a particularly interesting choice. Taking an intersectional approach, Leah is a triple outsider.[viii] First, she is a Samaritan. Samaritans were ostracized, regarded as a mixed race people descended from the Assyrian invaders and the Jews left behind during the Babylonian captivity. The ancient historian Josephus writes about how Jews and Samaritans hated and murdered each other.[ix]
Second, Leah is a woman. Women were not allowed to participate in public life. Every morning faithful male Jews would pray, “thank God I am not a woman.” Women were regarded as dangerous. Religious teachers were not allowed to talk to women in public, not even their own wives. An intersectionality approach shows us that Samaritan women were regarded as particularly and permanently unclean. Jews did not share drinking vessels with Samaritans because according to the Mishnah tractate, Niddah 4:1, “Samaritan women are deemed menstruants from the cradle.”[x]
Third, Leah is a disgraced woman. The others make their visit to the well in the morning. They chat as they work together. But Leah is not welcome. She is one of the people they talk about and so she has come alone at noon. She has had five husbands and lives with a man who is not her husband.
Leah is used to being avoided. She and Jesus have every reason to stay away from each other. How surprising it must be when Jesus looks at her gently and asks for water. Why is he here? Is he lost? She knows from the way he looks and how he speaks that he is a Jew, and that what he is asking for somehow breaks their rules.
They talk and against all expectations Leah begins to understand the “living water” Jesus offers her. She says, “Sir, give me this water” (Jn. 4). Then the subject abruptly changes and Jesus asks her to get her husband. At this turning point she has a choice. She could say, “I thought we were talking about religion. Why ask such a personal question?” Or she could lie.[xi]
Saying, “I have no husband,” is barely and only literally true. Jesus tells her the rest of the truth about herself. Instead of pulling away, he moves closer to her and all of a sudden it feels overwhelming. She tries to change the subject back to religion and that old debate between Jews and Samaritans. She probably thinks that if Jesus knows about the husbands, he must know pretty much everything else too. She hopes to use this debate to confuse matters, to step back away from him and hide.
But this does not work. When she steps back, he moves toward her. He will not let her simply slip away. Just as she tries to hide herself, he will show her who he really is. She says, “I know the Messiah is coming.” And Jesus says, “I am he.”
This is the first time he has told anyone. It is a moment for complete honesty. The triple outsider and the Messiah encounter each other with no pretenses. All the rules, taboos, prejudices, history fall away forgotten.
Jesus shows Leah who she really is. Beyond all possible human identities, she is a child of God. And this is true today too. The Messiah is the one in whose presence we know who we really are – the good and the bad, the possibilities for the future. The Messiah shows us ourselves by crossing all boundaries, breaking all rules, and speaking to us like someone we have known for our whole life.
When we know we are children of God, we can go back to face people we thought we never could face again. We can say with courage, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”
3. As a faithful Christian the poet Czeslaw Milsoz understood the way that Jesus gives us the possibility of a new beginning beyond the identities we claim and the ones imposed on us. He writes about this in one of his last poems “Late Ripeness.”
“Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, / I felt a door opening in me and I entered / the clarity of early morning. / One after another my former lives were departing, / like ships, together with their sorrow. // And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas / assigned to my brush came closer, / ready now to be described better than they were before// I was not separated from people/ grief and pity joined us. / We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. // For where we came from there is no division / into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.//… I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”[xii]
I have learned so much from Jesus, from that long-distant Samaritan woman and from Czeslaw Milosz. There is living water in the most agonizing spot in terrorized Europe. Even when we are isolated by loneliness and surrounded by strangers, we have a visible sign. The statute lifts its hand. We no longer have to be separated from others. God is spirit and we are all children of the King. Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.
[i] “500 churches and religious sites destroyed in Ukraine during the war,” World Council of Churches, 22 February 2023. https://www.oikoumene.org/news/500-churches-and-religious-sites-destroyed-in-ukraine-during-the-war
[ii] “The number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine is approaching 200,000, a stark symbol of just how badly President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion has gone, according to American and other Western officials.” Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Soaring Death Toll Gives Grim Insight Into Russian Tactics,” The New York Times, 2 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/02/us/politics/ukraine-russia-casualties.html
[iii] Milosz was in Warsaw when it was bombed as part of the German invasion. With colleagues from Polish Radio he escaped. When he learned that his future wife Janina was there, he returned for her. This quote is from Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind (1953).
[iv] Czeslaw Milosz, “My Faithful Mother Tongue” (1968) The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 216.
[v] “You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime, / And kept a pack of fools around you / To mix good and evil, to blur the line, // Though everyone bowed down before you, / saying virtue and wisdom lit your way, /Striking gold medals in your honor, Glad to have survived another day,// Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. / You can kill one, but another is born./The words are written down, the deed, the date.//And you’d have done better with a winter dawn, / A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.” Czeslaw Milosz, “You Who Wronged” (1950), The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 106.
[vi] Czeslaw Milosz, “Veni Creator” (1961), The Collected Poems (NY: Ecco Press, 1988) 194.
[vii] “Intersectionality… posits that race, class, gender, sexuality and other forms of identity intersect in ways that shape individuals’ experience of the world.” Dana Goldstein, Stephanie Saul and Anemona Hartocollis, “Florida officials had repeated contact with College Board over African American Studies,” The New York Times, 9 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/09/us/florida-college-board-african-american-studies.html
[viii] A great deal of my account of this has been influenced by the following. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” The Christian Century, 12 February 2008. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2008-02/identity-confirmation?code=IKeroTclkxra5Bnp5Hgg&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=a1a9300470-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2023-03-06&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-a1a9300470-86237307
[ix] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Book XX, Chapter 6. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-20.html
[x] Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 164.
[xi] This section and the meeting of the “triple outsider” and the Messiah comes directly from Barbara Brown Taylor, “Identity Confirmation: John 4:5-42,” The Christian Century, 12 February 2008.
[xii] “Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, / I felt a door opening in me and I entered / the clarity of early morning. / One after another my former lives were departing, / like ships, together with their sorrow. // And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas / assigned to my brush came closer, / ready now to be described better than they were before// I was not separated from people/ grief and pity joined us. / We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the King. // For where we came from there is no division / into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.// We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part / of the gift we received for our long journey.// Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago – / a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror / of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel / staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us, / waiting for fulfillment.//I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, / as are all men and women living at the same time, / whether they are aware of it or not.”
Czeslaw “Late Ripeness,” Milosz (tr. Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz), Second Space: New Poems by Czeslaw Milosz (NY: Harper Collins, 2004). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49453/late-ripeness
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1).
1. “What are you looking for?” These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Another way to put this would be to ask, “what is the meaning and purpose of your life.” This question of Jesus echoes the words of the ancient Hebrew philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) in his treatise “The Worse Attacks the Better.”i
Philo’s essay suggests that an authentic self in each of us seeks meaning and may find it in self-mastery, courage, piety, virtue or in other forms of goodness. But to realize truth this self has to overcome forces of illusion, distraction and fear. In short, we have to overcome the demands of our ego to have a meaningful life.
This naturally leads to another related question. What holds you back from experiencing your life as a child of God? Perhaps you are just too busy. Work demands so much more from us than it did a generation ago in the days before cell phones. Maybe you just cannot believe in a personal God who cares about you especially when you see the enormity of suffering and evil in the world. Perhaps you are afraid of being taken in or that because of what you did, you do not deserve to be God’s child.
On our Tuesday night Forum I interviewed the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye. He has a little experiment for church audiences. He asks them to raise their hands if they believe in God. Then he asks them to raise their hands if they ever worry. He exclaims how can you both believe in God and worry. In my head I thought it is very easy for me to do both, even at the same time. Sometimes my words and actions clearly show that I am not believing in God very much.
The question of meaning lies at the heart of a 2022 film called Everything Everywhere All at Once. The first scene introduces us to Evelyn a constantly working Chinese immigrant who lives above her laundromat and is overwhelmed by the demands of her disapproving father’s visit, a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughter Joy and a looming tax audit.ii
Evelyn has no time for her silly husband Waymond who desperately seeks to get her attention. She has no idea that their relationship is at risk. Then at the IRS offices Evelyn discovers a connection to the multiverse. The multiverse is the fantastical idea that at every decision point in our lives the universe effectively splits in two. For instance, when Evelyn decided to marry Waymond against her father’s wishes, there came into existence a family of worlds in which she did not marry him and one in which she did.
In this scheme billions of other versions of you exist in the other universes. People in the alpha universe discovered how to switch consciousness with your other selves so that you can briefly make use of their talents in your world.
An alternate universe version of her husband tells Evelyn that out of all the other Evelyns she is the worst failure. But in the end she realizes the power of overcoming our tendency to judge and criticize so that we can continually repair and cultivate relationships. This is the meaning of our life.
2. The Gospel of John begins with a hymn about how Christ is present at the very beginning of all things, and that darkness will never overcome this light. It then describes the baptism of Jesus. The next day John tells his friends, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1). The baptizer says he knows this because he saw the spirit remain on him.
According to this account Jesus does not die as a sacrifice in our place to satisfy God (lambs were not sacrificial animals). Instead the Greek word that we translate as taking away sin is airō. It means to raise, lift up, remove and is the same word John uses for taking away the stone blocking the tomb (Jn. 20), or taking up one’s cross.
To explain who Jesus is, John does not refer to sacrifices but to the Exodus, when the Israelites were protected from the destructive powers of God by putting lamb’s blood on their doorways. They are saved so that they can be set free. God frees us from chains that prevent us from being with God and each other.
The word sin (hamartia) is singular not plural. Sin is not primarily about sex or private morality. When we say Jesus takes away sin, we mean that sin is a disease. It keeps us from caring for each other and ultimately finding fulfillment. Sin is prejudice, fear of scarcity, competition for attention, confusing people for enemies, ignoring the needs of others, not seeing the value in our own uniqueness, asserting our identity in ways that put us at odds with others, thinking we are separated from the well-being of others.
Social theorist bell hooks describes sin as the failure of love. She says, “Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs our decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.”iii
God made us this way, with this longing. And Jesus believes in love’s promise. He invites Andrew to spend the day with him. Quickly Andrew becomes convinced Jesus is the messiah. Andrew’s brother Simon reaches the same conclusion because Jesus so thoroughly understands him. Philip responds immediately to Jesus’ invitation. Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree and Nathanael instantly reveres him.
The point is that Jesus does not present an argument for believing. Instead he offers a question, “what are you looking for?” and an invitation, “come and see.” We can do the same thing. The theologian Karl Barth writes that according to John, “the whole meaning and purpose of the mission of Jesus is to bring joy” (Jn. 16:30ff).iv We too can live in this joy but it requires that we embrace a new way of life.
3. Karl Barth also writes, “Faith is not obedience, but as obedience is not obedience without faith, faith is not faith without obedience.”v I am going to close with two remarkable stories about Christians who answered the call to come and see.
Before a huge gathering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assistant told him that there were credible threats on his life. As part of his speech that night King spoke about his own death, how he wanted no one to respond with violence. Afterwards his friend Ralph Abernathy asked if he was okay, and could not comfort him. King found himself wishing for “an honorable way out without injuring the cause.”vi
One night he came home late and slipped into bed quietly. The phone rang and an ugly voice said, “if you aren’t out of this town in three days, I’m gonna blow your brains out and blow up your house,” and hung up. King went downstairs brewed a cup of coffee and paced as he thought about all the philosophy and theology he had studied. He considered quitting. Then he sat at the kitchen table and prayed saying, “Lord I’m down here trying to do what’s right… but I’m weak now. I’m afraid. People are looking to me for leadership… [and] I have nothing left.”
Then with tears in his eyes, he felt a “presence stirring in himself.” An inner voice seemed to speak with quiet assurance saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world. It was the voice of Jesus promising to never leave him. His trembling stopped and he felt an inner calm that he had never known before. God stopped being a kind of metaphysical category. King felt God profoundly near to him.
At Grace Cathedral we have been offering bystander training to equip ourselves to know how to confront injustice and unkindness out in the world. Alma Robinson strongly recommends these sessions. One day after the opera she was near Costco. She was calling an uber and out of the corner of her eye she could see a woman coming toward her. Alma thought she might be trying to ask for money. Since Alma did not have any, at first she tried to avoid her.
But then Alma remembered her bystander training and the instruction to lean into her discomfort. She approached the woman who asked for her phone. Instead Alma said that she would dial the number and that the woman could talk on the speaker. The woman called her mother in Minnesota. The mother felt desperately relieved to hear from her missing daughter. She asked Alma to get her medical help right away. Alma dialed 911. The ambulance arrived just as her uber got there.
The next day the woman’s mother called Alma back and told her that her daughter had been suffering from mental illness and had thrown her cell phone into the Bay, that she had been so worried about her child living on the streets but could not do anything about it until Alma had helped. She thanked Alma as a fellow mother.
What are you looking for? And what stands in the way of experiencing yourself as a child of God? In this universe we are busy, judgmental, preoccupied with failure. We sometimes feel afraid of being taken in, not always sure that we deserve good things. We believe in God and worry at the same time.
And yet Jesus promises that we can be healed of the disease that separates us from what we should love, that he can free us from the power of sin.
Perhaps we think too much about the meaning of our life. The meaning of Jesus’ life is to bring joy. He does not give us an argument for believing but an invitation to come and see.
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4).
1. Often I start with a question but today I want to finish with one. Sixty years ago President John F. Kennedy, full of confidence in modern science, made two predictions. First, that within a decade a human being would walk on the moon. And second, that science would, “make the remote reaches of the human mind accessible.” At that time few people might have guessed that traveling 239,000 miles through oxygen-less -455 degree Fahrenheit outer space would be far, far easier than discovering psychiatric cures for mental illness.i
In David Bergner’s book The Mind and the Moon, he shares the story of his younger brother Bob who was diagnosed with bi-polar at age twenty-one, institutionalized and medicated with drugs that had debilitating side-effects. Bergner also follows Caroline a woman from Indiana who started hearing voices as a child and whose drug treatments, starting in elementary school, led to obesity and losing control of her forearms and hands. He introduces us to a civil rights lawyer named David whose severe depression during the Trump administration could not be mitigated by either the drugs his doctor prescribed or the psychedelics he turned to afterwards.
Bergner points out how little we understand the mind. He writes about the damage that can be caused by a psychological diagnosis (which puts us in a kind of box and separates us from other people) and of many drug treatments which have questionable efficacy. Forty million American adults and millions more children are on psychiatric drugs. In one ten year period the number of children diagnosed with bi-polar increased fortyfold. Thirty to forty percent of our students are treated with psychiatric medication at some point in their college years.ii
I’m not trying to make a point about how we treat mental illness. I just want to remind us how much we are a mystery to ourselves. Perhaps the saddest part of Bergner’s book for me came when he quoted the prominent neuroscientist Eric Nestler. Nestler said that unquestionably fewer Americans should be on psychotropics for depression and anxiety. He went on, “Exercise. Better sleep. Mindfulness. The belief in something bigger than yourself. Religion if you are religious.” Nestler said, “People with religious beliefs benefit greatly from them.” He wondered if they fostered a, “capacity to bring order and meaning into one’s life.”iii
And then the sad part. He said that religion was not part of his own life. He tragically explained, “The thing about religion is, I can’t know whether Jesus is the Son of God or whether Allah rose to heaven on a winged horse. Those are not scientifically knowable.”iv This is an insurmountable barrier for him, and many others. Theology has failed our generation when ordinary people think that they have to believe something contrary to science in order to be religious. Christians like us have a lot of work to do in explaining this to the people around us.
The stakes are high. On Tuesday one of our daughters’ friends took his own life only months before graduating from college.v From his social media posts you would never have realized that there was anything wrong. Did he understand that he is a child of God? There is no way for us to know.
This morning, the first Sunday in Lent, we have before us central biblical texts: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the Garden of Eden. How do these ancient stories help modern people to understand God? How do we interpret them? What meaning should they have in our life?
2. For Matthew wilderness is equivocal. On the one hand it has no structure and is void. On the other hand it represents limitless possibility, a context for encountering God.vi In ancient scripture the number forty represents a long time.vii This connects Jesus with other figures who persevered over time.
My friend Matt Boulton proposes an alternative to the way we usually interpret this story.viii For him it is not about a hero bravely resisting temptations to comfort, security and glory with admirable self-control. It is not about the devil offering something that Jesus deeply desires and Jesus gritting his teeth and responding like someone on a diet knowing that he should not have another plate of cookies. This is not about sacrifice but about trust.
Similarly the story of Eden’s forbidden fruit is not primarily about sin and disobedience or temptation, but rather about fear, and the failure to trust. Let’s begin by seeing the connection between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and Moses.
After his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the temple in order to show that God would save him and to control all the nations of the world. After each of the devil’s offers Jesus responds with a quote from the story of Moses and the years before he received the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy.
At Grace Cathedral our Sunday school calls the Ten Commandments, “the ten best ways.” Moses teaches the people that the law is not for the purpose of keeping something good away from us. The law provides the order that sustains human life, as he says, “so that you may live and increase.”ix We honor our parents not because we fear God’s punishment, but because we want to live in a society that cares for our elders.
For forty years, before receiving the law, every morning the people of Israel in the wilderness gathered food from God called Manna. Moses calls this a time of preparation. God cared for them, and provided food in order to humble them so that they would be ready for the law. According to Moses if the Israelites had skipped the forty years in the wilderness and immediately entered the Promised Land, they would mistake the abundance there as the result of their own labor and not as a simple gift from God. Moses teaches that every good gift comes from God.
It is not that we somehow are good and keep the commandments and then deserve a reward. We live by the grace of God. Commandments are part of that gift. The culminating statement about this comes when Moses says, you are fed with manna, “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:30). The forty days that the Israelites spent in the wilderness were to teach them that we live entirely by the grace of God. Matt calls this “the hidden fountain in our lives… the font of every blessing we encounter.”x
Jesus’ first temptation is not so much about his personal hunger, but about whether he will decide to no longer depend on how God has already been feeding him. At first it seems to be about hunger, but what the devil is really saying is, “You do not need God to feed you. Sustain yourself.” And Jesus replies that he lives by God’s word.xi
Similarly the second temptation is not about security. It is about having the kind of faith that means we do not need to test God. The third temptation is not chiefly about having total economic and political power to save the world from injustice and suffering. It is about not succumbing to the fantasy that a world under our total control would be better than the world God is already giving us.
I want to say just a word about the Garden of Eden. The serpent’s strategy for betraying Eve and Adam revolves around the contention that God cannot be trusted. First, the serpent says that God would keep food from them, then insisting that God lied in saying that they would die. Finally the serpent talks as if God regarded the couple as rivals and wants to keep them from having their eyes opened and becoming like God.
The problem is not so much that they disobey an arbitrary commandment about fruit. The serpent has tricked them into seeing God as a jealous rival rather than as the loving source of all the goodness they receive. We too have been fooled into forgetting all that God gives us for the sake of love.
Let me conclude with one more observation. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” “command the stones,” or “throw yourself down.” In English the function of each word is determined by its placement in a sentence. In Greek it is easier to change word order. In this case the devil unconventionally separates son from God (“if son you are the God” “Ei huois ei tou theou”). The only other time this occurs is when the crowds are jeering Jesus during his execution and say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 27:40). The devil literally, linguistically, grammatically, separates Jesus from God.
3. And that is what is at stake for us. Trust. Connection to God. The devil attacks the very idea that we are children of God and that God is giving us what we need. We live with so many people in such despair. Many think that faith requires believing the unbelievable, and this makes holiness seem as inaccessible to them as, “the remote reaches of the mind.”
Every day offers us the chance to live as if there is no God, or as if God were our rival. Every day also presents us with the chance to experience our existence as God’s priceless gift. We are a mystery to ourselves. During this limitless season of Lent we will encounter the sustaining grace of God. Let it prepare us for the promised land where we will live more fully out of God’s hidden fountain of love. During this journey how will we show the people around us that they are children of God?
“And Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid…” (Mt. 17).
Last week in an email my friend Hugh Morgan observed that when it comes to social justice the Old Testament prophets sound strikingly modern to him. He wonders if the Old Testament has a stronger social justice message than the New Testament.1 Today we consider this question.
But first let’s define social justice as equality in wealth, political influence, cultural impact, respect… in opportunities to make a difference, to love and serve others. It involves creating a society in which every person is treated with dignity as a child of God, as bearing God’s image. Jesus calls this the realm of God. Martin Luther King calls it “the beloved community.”
Today we celebrate the Last Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means a shining forth. You might call it a realization that utterly transforms us. The culminating story of this season occurs on a mountain top when Jesus’ friends experience a mystical encounter with God.
In a recent conversation the law professor Patricia Williams spoke about two epiphanies that she had had.2 For her whole life she had taken at face value family stories she had heard about her great-great-grandmother. These described her as a lazy person who was constantly fishing, as someone that no one liked. Then when Williams was in her twenties her sister discovered the bill of sale for their great-great-grandmother.
In an instant she realized the truth. At the age of eleven her great-great-grandmother had been sold away from all that she had ever known. Two years later she was pregnant with the child of the dissatisfied thirty-five year old man who had bought her. She was traumatized so alienated from his children, who were taught to look down on her, that the only thing they chose to tell her descendants was that she was unpopular. To get to the truth Patricia Williams had to interpret those two stories together and to have empathy for someone’s suffering. We have to do the same thing in order to understand the Bible.
Getting back to our question, Hugh makes a wise observation about the importance of social justice in the Old Testament. The deceased Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah
(1927-2013) wrote a book called Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. He asks about how religious belief makes large human societies possible. He notes that Israel first appears in Egyptian records in the year 1208 BCE, long before anything written in the Bible.
He points out two notable features about the social world that produced the Old Testament. First, that this it attempts to establish a society not on the role of one man as a divine king (like most Egyptian pharaohs) but rather on a covenant between God and the people. Moses is a prophet not a divine king.
The second thing he notices is that the prophets, for instance, Amos does not just condemn failures of religious ritual but the mistreatment of the weak and poor. Amos criticizes both foreigners and his own people. He writes, “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2).3
At this point I feel compelled to tell you more about the Old Testament. It will be a long time before Chat GPT can write an accurate sermon. I am totally astonished by how incorrect search engine results are when it comes to some of the most basic issues in religion. This includes how we determine when these books were written. There was no journalist taking notes in the Garden of Eden or the court of David. The books of the Bible were not written in the order in which the events they record happened, or in the order in which they are presented.
One way to look at it is to see them growing up around the two ideas I just mentioned from the prophet Amos – that there is one God for all people and that God cares how the poor are treated. Scholars believe that the words of the prophet Amos were among the first in the entire Bible. So it is not as if the world was created, Noah built an ark, Abraham met God, God chose the Tribes of Israel, David’s kingdom was established, many other kings reigned and then social justice became important. Social justice, this idea of God’s universality and the dignity of every person, comes first. The other stories are ancient but put together by writers with this conviction in mind.
So the twentieth century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the prophets, “the most disturbing people who ever lived” and “the [ones] who brought the Bible into being.” They “ceaseless[ly] shatter our indifference.” They interpret our existence from the perspective of God. Heschel writes that the prophets have assimilated their emotional life to that of the Divine so that the prophet, “lives not only his personal life but also the life of God. The prophet hears God’s voice and feels His heart.”4
The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew with three main types of literature the Torah (instruction or) the law, the Nevi’im or prophets, and the Ketuvim or the writings. The New Testament was written in Greek under Roman occupation and includes totally different genres: gospels, epistles or letters, and John’s apocalyptic conclusion the Book of Revelation.
As Jesus alludes to in the Book of Matthew, the New Testament is built on the foundation of the old – that there is one God for all the nations who cares about human dignity. It has a different feeling because it is composed at a different time, under different social circumstances for a different audience. But for me it is not less focused on social justice. Christians do not worship the Bible, but the person of Jesus. Jesus is how we understand our lives and our connection to God.
We see this in today’s gospel. The story of the Transfiguration is not so much about a private mystical experience, but a meditation on Christ’s passion. It exists to shape our response to Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the Book of Matthew. We climb up one side through Jesus’ teaching and healing until we finally hear Jesus describe how his death will be. The disciples cannot take it in. We go down the other side to Jerusalem where Jesus will be killed. And for a reassuring moment we linger at the mountaintop.
Let me briefly tell you three things about the Greek text. Matthew uses the emphatic word idou or “Behold! Look!” three times. First, before the appearance of Moses who represents the law, and Elijah who stands for the prophets. Then again when a shining cloud appears and yet again when God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” (Mt. 17).
Jesus’ friends feel so afraid they fall down like dead people. Jesus tells his friends to rise up and uses the same word he does when he says that the Son of Man will be raised from the dead. Jesus touches them in a reassuring way. The Greek word hapsamenos means to touch, hold or grasp. But it also can be translated as to light or ignite a flame.
What does it mean for social justice, to have at the heart of our religion a man who gives up his life and is executed? It is not just what Jesus says that matters. He gives his life to help make real this idea that God loves every human being, that each life has innate dignity. This includes the truth that death is not the end.
Although Christians often get lost in the belief that faith is about an isolated individual’s personal salvation, there is a deep tradition of meditating on the way Jesus’ death reverses the overwhelming evil all around us. I do not have time for more examples but I would like to mention Basil of Caesarea (330-379).
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells the story about a rich man who has so much property that he decides to build a bigger barn to hold it all so that he can “eat, drink and be merry” (Lk. 12). That night the foolish man dies. So the fourth century Basil wrote a sermon about this. He says that what we think we need constantly changes. We are metaphorically building smaller and bigger barns all the time. When we think we need too much we cannot be generous to others.
Basil says, “How can I bring the sufferings of the poverty-stricken to your attention? When they look around inside their hovels… [and] find clothes and furnishings so miserable… worth only a few cents. What then? They turn their gaze to their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might find some respite from death. Consider now the violent struggle that takes place between the desperation arising from famine and a parent’s fundamental instincts. Starvation on the one side threatens horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with their children. Time and again they vacillate, but in the end they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity.”5 The Christian tradition in every generation is filled with appeals like this. They beg us to recognize the full humanity of every person.
Let me tell you the second of Patricia Williams’ two epiphanies. When she was a child there were very few women or Black people who were judges, law professors, law partners, attorney generals, etc. Virtually all law had been written by white men. Because of this there were blind spots, basic failures to understand society that had crucial legal ramifications.6
Professor Williams and other intellectuals invented Critical Race Theory to address this, to help the law work for all people, not just those in power. These debates were largely for people in universities until about ten years ago. In our conversation Professor Williams expressed her surprise when she heard a powerful political consultant talk about how he had made millions of Americans fear and hate this social justice project. He had successfully convinced them to regard Critical Race Theory as divisive and dangerous to white people. He explicitly stated that increasing their anger was a means of getting their votes.7
The great twentieth century Jewish expert in building healthy religious congregations Edwin Friedman frequently repeats this warning. “Expect sabotage.”8 When we are working for good, to change how things are, we will be opposed. Those who care about social justice need to understand that there will be people who actively seek to thwart it.
Patricia Williams is a prophet for me, shattering my indifference. Many here this morning are prophets to me also. Behold. Be ignited. Shine forth. Let the realization of Jesus’ love utterly transform us.
1 Hugh Morgan, 9 February 2023. “In reading Isaiah and the minor prophets, I am struck by how modern they sound, when calling out issues of social justice. Of course, our thinking has been influenced by the enlightenment and all that came after it, so my brain may be predisposed to see these threads in the text. But they are there. You do not see the same strength of views on social justice in the New Testament, certainly little about upsetting the then current order. And I do not think you see similar messages supporting the oppressed in Greek or Roman writings (I have a super limited sense of what these are.) And, you do not see “social justice thought” – a very modern thing – called out, developed, emphasized from the OT texts in the early church, nor through the reformation, not even in the revivals in America and England in the late 1800s. Two questions to ponder 1. Where did the social justice message in the OT come from? 2. Are there strains of this message in church history that I / we are not aware of?”
2 Patricia J. Williams on the Grace Cathedral Forum, 1 February 2023. https://youtu.be/8h-xHY7OIuY . Also see Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) 17-19.
3 Robert Bellay, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Quoting Michael Walzer and David Malo on a covenant between the people and God (310f). Amos’ ethical statements (302).
4 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Volume One (NY: Harper, 1962) ix-26.
5 “How can I bring the sufferings of the poverty-stricken to your attention? When they look around inside their hovels… [and] find clothes and furnishings so miserable… worth only a few cents. What then? They turn their gaze to their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might find some respite from death. Consider now the violent struggle that takes place between the desperation arising from famine and a parent’s fundamental instincts. Starvation on the one side threatens horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with their children. Time and again they vacillate, but in the end they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity.” Basil of Caesarea, “I Will Tear Down My Barns.” Tr. Paul Shroeder. Cited in Logismoi. http://logismoitouaaron.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-social-justice-by-st-basil-great.html
6 Professor Patricia J. Williams and I talked about “stand your ground” laws that result in much higher rates of death among Black men, because white people are more likely to be afraid of them.
7 In an online interaction I heard from someone who is monomaniacally focused on the idea that Critical Race Theory must necessarily involve government forced discrimination against white people. He did not have the time to see the Patricia Williams interview. He had already made up his mind.
8 “Sabotage is part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership.” Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (NY: Church Publishing, 2017 revised).
“[N]ow we have received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit that is from God” (2 Cor. 2:1).
You are the salt of the earth. At 6:00 p.m., at the height of the century’s worst winter storm, I put on waterproof biking pants and a jacket to go walking in the darkness. Rain poured down in sheets. In the Presidio forest, along the ridge, 60 knot gusts of wind tore through the Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees. It sounded like a deafening freight train. As debris landed all around I felt nagging fear but also awe in the face of such power and beauty, in the presence of God. I could see no sign of another living soul except for a single light far offshore in thirty foot swells outside the Golden Gate.
This week I gradually began to understand the news. Our seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific will be closing its classrooms for in person learning and most likely selling their property (which lies across the street from the University of California, Berkeley).1 The university motto Fiat Lux, means “let there be light.” And today I want to begin by expressing what a great light our seminary has been for me during my whole adult life.
I remember going to Thursday evening community eucharists there during the ferocious El Nino storms of my first year in college. As an eighteen year old I loved the Episcopal Church. Berkeley with its four Episcopal churches, two break-away churches, a university chaplaincy, a kind of Anglican newspaper (called the New Oxford Review) and seminary seemed like heaven to me. I have fond memories of studying in the Graduate Theological Library from the time it first opened.
My college chaplain Peter Haynes had us meet in the seminary parking lot to drive together for my first retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch. The people in this setting profoundly shaped my faith as a guide to a compassionate, generous, beautiful, uniting, and thoughtful way of being. This faith opened me to the experiences of people of different backgrounds, even of different religions and of no religion. This faith also grounded me in traditions that connect us to our deepest humanity.
Before long I was kneeling on the warm red carpet at St. Clement’s Church in Berkeley and getting ordained as a priest. Soon after that I began participating in monthly Faculty
Clergy lunches. John Kater first introduced the idea of online learning to us a year after the invention of the world wide web.
For twenty years I participated in Pacific Coast Theological Society meetings at the seminary with Owen Thomas, Patricia Codron, Huston Smith, Herman Waetjen.2 I cherish my clergy colleagues who were educated there and their teachers. I can see in my mind’s eye the busy brick refectory at lunchtime with students and teachers from across the country engaged in friendly talk on a fall day as the liquid amber tree leaves outside the windows burst into an impossibly beautiful redness.
You may be getting a sense for the heartbreak I feel about our seminary, that with others I am mourning its loss. This brings us to one of Jesus’ most important lessons about how to live, known in the Gospel of Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount. Let me briefly talk about the central elements of Jesus’ teaching and then introduce a psychologist and two theologians who give us further insights into its meaning.
Today we hear the second part of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with Jesus saying “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers” (Mt. 5). Jesus does not say that one thing leads to the other as if we should somehow try to be poor in spirit in order that we might be blessed. No, Jesus speaks to US. We are the people who mourn, the humble ones frustrated by injustice, longing for goodness and mercy.
Indeed Jesus says to us this morning, “YOU are the salt of the earth… YOU are the light of the world.” The Greek word “you” is plural. It involves all of us. It is imperative to notice that Jesus is not asking us to change who we are. We are already what we need to be. We do not have to become something entirely new. We just need to learn how to magnify the goodness we already possess.
For this metaphor Jesus chooses things that in small quantities have a massive effect. A tiny bit of salt brings out the flavor of a large meal. You are that salt, enriching the banquet for everyone. A single candle flame can be seen from 1.6 miles away. It takes half an hour to walk the distance to that tiny light that might guide someone home.
So again Jesus is not saying that this is a cause and effect relationship, that by doing something good you become blessed. This is not a matter of punishment or reward. You already are blessed, so make the most of it! In an often cited passage Marianne Williamson writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who
are you not to be?” “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”3
1. In 2009 I attended a training in Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications. It changed my life.4 Rosenberg asserts that we all have a kind of light or energy or life that animates us. We have needs that we often do not understand for food, safety and love. Instead of trying to compel others, to force them to do we want, we should instead learn to state our need and then ask them for help. We do this knowing that all human beings have a deep longing to be of service to others.
This all begins with seeing that light in other people. And this requires that we learn to quiet the critical voice that judges others and ourselves (Rosenberg calls the jackal). He recommends that instead of using judgment words (like “you are always late”) or presuming that we know what another person is thinking, we should learn the gift of the question. We need to learn how to simply ask what another person needs. Instead of an inner life in which we criticize ourselves we need to ask ourselves what we need.
2. Today at the Forum I talked with my favorite teacher Margaret Miles about her newest book on how the third century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo (345-430 CE) changed in his old age. Quite often we quote his words when we invite everyone to the communion table saying, “Be what you see. Receive what you are.”5 This is almost a riddle with the answer – the body of Christ. It reminds us that we are God’s children. We are salt and light, even when we may not feel very close to God.
Augustine talks about the difficulty of believing in miracles and what our bodies will be like in the resurrection. He says that these ideas matter only as much as they influence how we live now. In his prayer addressed to God he says that we are not only, “instructed so as to see you… but also so as to grow strong enough to hold you, and the one who cannot see you for the distance, may yet walk along the road by which he will arrive and see you and hold you…” To us he says, ”Walk without fear, run, but stay on the road… do not stand still, do not turn back, do not get sidetracked… Any who find that they may have gone astray must return to the road and walk on it, and any who find they are on the road must go on walking until they arrive.”6
3. One of my favorite writers of our generation is the gay English Roman Catholic theologian James Allison. The Stanford University professor René Girard (1923-2015) deeply influenced him. Girard taught that all human societies have what he calls the scapegoat mechanism. We covet, that is we want what other people have, this leads to instabilities and social tensions. These in turn are resolved by punishing or banishing an individual or group. We fix our social problems by blaming others. According to Allison and Girard, Jesus overturns the scapegoat mechanism and makes possible the realm of God in which all people are loved.
In my clergy group I heard the following story about James Alison. For many years he lived in Brazil. But not long after moving to Spain, a Brazilian bishop began a long and ultimately successful process of removing Alison from the priesthood. This was heartbreaking new for Alison. Then one day he received a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line told him that it was Francis, Pope Francis. Alison felt sure that it had to be a friend playing a trick on him until a number of questions fully established that this was the actual pope and that he was giving him the “power of the keys” and effectively reinstating him as a priest.7
As a gay man Alison was himself scapegoated but his light shines too brightly to be diminished. He does not hide. I give thanks for Augustine’s reminder to stay on the road to God even when our father seems so far off. I give thanks for Marshall Rosenberg’s reminder that our critical inner voice makes it hard to see the light in others. Above all, I am so grateful for the compassionate, generous and thoughtful light of the people associated with our seminary. They contributed to the faith that has guided me to this day.
That night a few weeks ago out in the storm. I encountered God. Looking at that lonely light on the ocean reminded me of one of the kids named William Hoyt who came to my ordination at St. Clement’s Church in Berkeley. His dad was a nuclear physicist and his mom a partner in a prestigious law firm. William grew up to be the captain of a tugboat. I wondered if he was out there in the storm, if it was his light that was going to guide someone home that night.
In the deafening freight train storm that surrounds us your light shines in this way also. Give the gift of the question. Do not turn back. Be what you see, receive who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
1 “CDSP Announces Shift to Fully Hybrid Education Model.” CDSP 31 January 2023. https://cdsp.edu/2023/01/cdsp-announces-shift-to-fully-hybrid-education-model/
2 I first met Norman Gottwald, Bob Russell, Ted Peters, Durwood Foster, Philip Clayton, Mark Graves, Darren Erisman, Sharon Burch, Scott MacDougall and dozens of other friends at Pacific Coast Theological Society.
3 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/928-our-deepest-fear-is-not-that-we-are-inadequate-our
4 Ursula, “Nonviolent Communications Workshop,” Christ Episcopal Church, Los Altos, 29 April 2009. Notebook page 134. See also Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communications: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, Your World in Harmony with Your Values. Audiobook. https://sfpl.bibliocommons.com/v2/record/S93C2415756
5 St. Augustine. “If you are Christ’s body and members, it is your mystery that is placed on the table of the Lord, it is your mystery that you receive… Be what you see and receive what you are.” Catholic Digest. https://www.catholicdigest.com/from-the-magazine/quiet-moment/st-augustine-if-you-are-christs-body-and-members-it-is-your-mystery/ Mary Carter Greene’s translation: “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
6 From Margaret Ruth Miles, Beautiful Bodies (Forthcoming). Augustine, Confessions 7:21 and En ps. 31, tr. Maria Boulding, Essential Expositions of the Psalms (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2015) 319-20. 7 I heard this story on different occasions from Donald Schell and Pat Kiefert. Some clarifying elements might be found in James Alison’s Wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Alison
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear” (Ps. 27)?
What new season of life are you entering? How will you need to change? What relationship will you have with God?
In the 1970’s anthropologist Dana Raphael coined the word matrescence. It sounds like adolescence, and is also a developmental stage. It refers to the process of becoming a mother. This changes every aspect of a woman’s life. Whether one adopts or gives birth, it is a physical, hormonal, psychological, social, political and spiritual change.
And yet because we did not know the name for it, many of us were so focused on caring for the new child, or “bouncing back” to our career, that we did not fully realize the vast changes accompanying motherhood. After having children, we are not supposed to just get our old bodies and lives back, to return to how things were. We are changed and the process of being changed is uncomfortable.1
I wonder what new stage of life Peter and Andrew, James and John are entering when they first encounter Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus retreats away from the political tensions and violence of Judea. He leaves home in Nazareth, and settles (kataoikeō) in Capernaum (what Isaiah calls Galilee of the Gentiles).2
Matthew quotes an Isaiah passage for the coronation of a king.3 In an eight century BCE conflict that might make you think of Ukraine today, Israel successfully defended itself against an Assyrian military campaign. Announcing a new age of peace, freedom and justice, the prophet exclaims, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isa. 9).
Matthew quotes these verses that were already hundreds of years old to show how Jesus is also inaugurating a new era. Jesus tells everyone to repent. He uses the word metanoia. It means to change the deepest patterns of our minds. We need to do this to experience the full magnitude of what God offers us.
The Greek word basileia means kingdom, reign, rule, realm, empire. Jesus directly compares the brutality and greed of the Roman basileia with a new heavenly basileia, the kingdom of God, in which all people will be liberated from oppression.
For thirty years I have studied this passage. This week for the first time I realized that Peter and Andrew are wading in the shallow water of the sea throwing their nets when Jesus invites them. The biblical scholar Herman Waetjen hypothesizes that they are very poor, engaged in seasonal work to supplement the other jobs they need to survive.4
James and John come from a higher social class. With their father, they own a boat. Dragging a net across the water they catch far more fish. Both sets of brothers are required to buy fishing rights from the Roman governors and are severely taxed. Both suffer under the occupying Roman armies. This might give us a hint of their state of mind when Jesus says simply, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mt. 4).
My friend Matt Boulton points out two ways of reading this. First, we can take it at face value. Jesus simply says two words and miraculously the brothers drop everything. Or second, he suggests that perhaps the brothers already feel a kind of dissatisfaction with their lives or dream of something better. The Greek verb “to leave” is aphiēmi. This is also the word for being freed from debt, slavery and sin. It is forgiveness and release. It is a jubilee word.5
Becoming a parent freed me from illusions that I had carried with me from my own childhood, it opened up a deeper experience of love, taught me about cooperating and that ultimately in the really difficult things we can depend on God’s grace.
Jesus does not tell these fishermen to believe something, or to join a political party, or defend a constitution. He just says, “follow me.” Walking alongside Jesus has been one of the greatest blessings of my life – especially in moments of change. This morning to all of us I simply say “follow him.”
The preacher Frederick Buechner accurately describes my experience in falling in love with my wife Heidi. I did not begin by fully understanding her and then coming to love her. With my limited experience as a twenty-three year old, I was not capable of understanding a woman from such a different world. But out of love understanding is born.
For this reason Buechner writes, “Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.”6 Elsewhere he writes that at
times we may even sense Jesus directing us, putting his hand gently on our shoulder. This has been the case for me when I really listen.
Today on the Forum I talked with Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner about his book Awe. After studying various expressions of awe in 26 cultures, Keltner believes that it is a fundamental part of being human, of experiencing meaning. He describes awe as an encounter with the vast mystery beyond our understanding. It is when we become free of our ego in the face of something far greater. It is a primary source of our happiness.7 Perhaps awe is what led Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Jesus.
Wonder is not exactly the same thing as awe, but it is close. The scientist Rachel Carson writes, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”8
Someone in the Episcopal Church must have heard this because in our baptism prayer we ask on behalf of our children for, “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”9 For me, awe is the experience of intuiting that we are loved by God.
Although surrounded by awe-provoking possibilities in the smallest and grandest experiences, sometimes we do feel alienated from the source of our strength. Sometimes fear or suffering makes us blind to joy and wonder. In moments like these we need to remind each other what we once knew.
In her autobiography, my teacher Margaret Miles quotes St. Augustine’s prayer to God, to himself and to us, across seventeen centuries. He writes, “You will bear us up, yes, from our infancy until our hair is gray, you will bear us up. Let us return to you, Lord so that we may not be overturned… [for] you yourself are our good. And we need not be afraid of having no place to which we may return…” Augustine repeats “Return, return to the source of life. Jesus himself calls you to come back. Return to your heart.10
Let me conclude with a poem and a blessing from John O’Donohue. I encourage you to shut your eyes and let yourself be addressed by these words.
“In out-of-the-way places of the heart, / Where your thoughts never think to wander, / This beginning has been quietly forming, / Waiting until you were ready to emerge. // For a long time it has watched your desire, / Feeling the emptiness growing inside you, / Noticing how you willed yourself on, / Still unable to leave what you had outgrown. // It
watched you play with the seduction of safety / And the gray promises that sameness whispered, / Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent, / Wondered would you always live like this.” “Then the delight, when your courage kindled, / And out you stepped onto new ground, / Your eyes young again with energy and dream, / A path of plenitude opening before you. // Though your destination is not yet clear / You can trust the promise of this opening; / Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning / That is at one with your life’s desire. // Awake your spirit to adventure; / Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; / Soon you will home in a new rhythm, / For your soul senses the world that awaits you.”11
Although I looked cool on the outside, on the day my wife Heidi gave birth to our first child, I was terrified that she was not going to make it. She had first felt labor pains three days before and her whole body was shaking and shivering because of the cold in the operating room and a large incision across her abdomen. But then we took that baby and laid by her chest. From the look in her eyes, I could see that she had become something stronger and new.
We have walked in darkness and seen a great light. The deepest patterns of our minds are being transformed by Jesus and his nearby realm of heaven. What new season of life are you entering? How will you need to change? What is coming to birth in you?
This week I have been thinking so much about my old friend Elwyn Berlekamp. Like my father, Elwyn was a mathematician. He was one of the founders of combinatorial game theory. He invented the algorithm to factor polynomials (the Berlekamp-Welch algorithm and the Berlekamp-Massey algorithm).
Elwyn was close to the Scientific American writer Martin Gardner who was a kind of childhood hero to me, and he loved mathematical games. I remember bringing him back a Native Hawaiian Konane game that weighed a ton but completely delighted him.
Elwyn’s father had been a congregational minister, and Elwyn always had something insightful to say about the sermons I preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church twenty-eight years ago.
Sunday worship has brought the most extraordinary people into my life. Someone once told me that we don’t invite all the people who come to worship with us, that in a sense, God brings them, and they transform us. Each Sunday in the pews around us, there are saints.
This is what we celebrate each year on Congregation Sunday. This Sunday, we will have our annual Town Hall meeting at 9:30 am and then celebrate our congregation both during the 11 am service and a party afterward. You will have a chance to meet new people and learn more about the ministries of Grace Cathedral.
Every day I give thanks for you and pray for you. You are a gift from God.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral
P.S. Yoga For Change is a one-of-a-kind yoga event where your practice makes a big difference! Your participation supports the littlest learners at The Community Preschool. Join us on September 24 at 10 am!
I’m looking forward so much to this Sunday when we will be having baptisms at both the 11 am and 6 pm services. For two thousand years, we have welcomed new people into the church in this way.
One of the things that surprised me during our summer tour of English cathedrals was the chapter rooms. Often they seemed like mini cathedrals with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass. For centuries conversations about cathedral ministry have taken place in these spaces.
This week during our chapter meeting, Jack Fagan, our Canon for Operations, talked about the sadness he felt in connection with reports from the Lambeth Conference in England about Anglican bishops who opposed same-sex marriages. The look on his face and his tone of voice echoed the same feeling that I had felt as I read about this.
Neither the archbishop of Canterbury nor bishops from any other Anglican nation have any official authority on the policies and practices of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I’m very proud that, in particular, our bishop Marc Andrus is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ people.
At Grace Cathedral, we will continue to marry same-sex couples. I hope and pray that the church in England and everywhere else will one day genuinely recognize every person as a child of God and see the holiness I have experienced in same-sex marriages.
Before closing, I want to share some sad news with you. We recently learned that Everett Davis has died. Everett worshiped at Grace Cathedral for over forty years and used to tell amazing stories about San Francisco over the years when he would take me to lunch at the Fairmont Hotel.
Everett was one of many friends that I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. Every week I look for these friends of mine. Each week we have a little family reunion at Grace Cathedral. See you soon.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral
P.S. At Grace, we have long been a supporter of racial justice, women’s liberation, environmental stewardship, LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality. In this week’s #MoreGoodNews, Dean Malcolm Clemens Young explores what same-sex weddings are like at Grace.
I am writing with very exciting news. The Rev. Canon Jude Harmon has recently accepted an appointment as Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. This is one of the most prominent and influential churches in our Diocese. Over the last twenty years, I’ve admired the work that this church has been doing. They will be blessed by his ministry, although we will miss him very much.
Jude arrived at Grace Cathedral and was ordained ten years ago as a priest. At first, he served in the short-term position of Minor Canon. Soon Jude began developing new ministries like Yoga and Labyrinth Walks. As Director of Innovative Ministries, he helped to bring us The Vine and Sound Bath. He introduced creative new worship services like the cherished annual Pride Mass and fostered important relationships in the San Francisco community. He will leave here as Canon for Innovative Ministries and as a valued voice in the Cathedral Chapter.
Like so many of us, I have been deeply blessed by Jude’s ministry to me. When I have questions about New Testament scholarship or the early church, I walk down the hall and have a conversation with Jude. As I faced some minor health concerns over the last year, he always checked to see how I was doing and offered helpful perspectives as I tried to figure out the best way forward.
Jude has a wisdom that I value very much. He is humble, thoughtful, and a great colleague. When we were setting up The Vine, Jude included me in the process of visiting other churches. It really gave me an insight into his role as a spiritual leader in the contemporary church. Jude is also one of our most popular preachers and could be the best preacher to a yoga community anywhere in the world.
We will celebrate Jude’s ministry at the 11 am Choral Eucharist on August 14, his last Sunday. He will have a short break before he starts at Trinity at the beginning of their program year in mid-September.
Until then, there will be many opportunities for each of us to thank Jude for all he has done for us, and for all the ways he has fed us over the years. I look forward to many more years of having him as a colleague in our Diocese. It will be a delight to watch as he continues to transform the church and share God’s word.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral
We just launched our Cultural Membership program for the Bay Area and beyond. We have been working on this for a long time, and we’re very excited to offer this both to our longstanding supporters as well as to casual visitors. This annual program will provide a new level of connection to our cathedral through arts and cultural events.
Cultural Membership builds on the diligent work that Julie Knight has done. As our Director of Cultural Membership and Visitor Experience she recently launched a new cathedral tour and greatly improved what we are able to show visitors. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to take the self-guided tour yourself as a sightseeing visitor, please do – the reaction and response from our community and tourists have been incredibly positive. Current congregants just need to identify as such at the welcome desk during non-service times for free sightseeing admission. It is a joy to be able to share what we love about Grace Cathedral with so many people.
Cultural Membership is a way to expand your engagement and support of Grace Cathedral. Benefits include a 10% discount for select performances and programs including yoga, Sound Bath, Ambient Grace, and TILT; free sightseeing admission with a self-guided tour to the cathedral during non-service times; invitations to members-only events; along with a series of other benefits corresponding to membership levels. You can read the full description of the various levels and the corresponding benefits here.
In addition, if you join now, you will become a Charter member of this inaugural program!
Please join me in congratulating Julie and the team on a job well done. We look forward to welcoming more people into our Grace Cathedral orbit.
The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral
All week I have been listening to Dean Emeritus Alan Jones… I’ve been listening to Alan singing. Today we are celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. As a boy, on June 2, 1953, Alan sang at her coronation in Westminster Abbey. The recording of the music at that event has been inspiring me.
Perhaps Alan has told you about his memories of that day. It was an impossibly grand occasion. I love his stories about the stirring music and the elegant nobility who were there. They gave each of the choristers a special meal ticket, but Alan was too shy to get in the line for food. I can imagine doing the same thing as a child.
Although our buildings may seem large, the world of cathedrals is much smaller than you might think. We are part of a global family of Anglican and other cathedrals, and there are many invisible ties that connect us.
This summer, Heidi and I will be going on a cathedral tour of England and France. We will be learning from leaders about every aspect of church life but focusing especially on how they have moved programs online and greet visitors. This is a moment of historical change, as the time of Gutenberg’s Bible, and we have a lot to learn from each other.
We plan to visit Chartres Cathedral with our Honorary Cathedral Canon Lauren Artress. We will learn more about the global practice of walking the labyrinth and its modern rebirth here at Grace Cathedral.
We will also spend time in London and Paris with our 2022 Artist in Residence, Lee Mingwei. You can see a recent project that he was working on at the Metropolitan Museum of New York on YouTube. I think you are going to enjoy meeting Lee Mingwei very much. I am confident that after all that we have been through with COVID, he will renew our spirits here.
As we travel, Heidi and I will record videos and share photographs and stories, so please stay tuned to share what we are learning as we travel. In every holy place we go, we will be praying for you!
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young, ThD
Dean of Grace Cathedral
I’m writing with very exciting news. The Rev. Dr. Greg Kimura has agreed to be our new Vice Dean and will be joining us here at Grace Cathedral on May 1, 2022. We will officially welcome him at 11 a.m. Choral Eucharist on Sunday, May 1.
Greg is a fourth-generation Alaskan with a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He is married to Joy Atrops-Kimura with two children, Julian (19) and Lilly (13).
Most recently Greg has been serving as the Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ojai, California. Before that, he was President and C.E.O. of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Greg also served as the President and C.E.O. of the Alaska Humanities Forum. He has taught at Alaska Pacific University and at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
Greg has led various churches and college chaplaincies. He is an international expert on philosophical pragmatism. His previous experiences will be a great blessing to our shared life. We look forward to many opportunities for you to welcome him and to learn more about his story.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young, ThD
Dean of Grace Cathedral