Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

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“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4).

1. Carl Jung (1875-1961) writes, “The most important question anyone can ask is: ‘What myth am I living?’” With a big smile on his face our former dean Alan Jones used to say to me, “you have to know your role in the play!” So what myth are you living? What play is this and what is your character? The therapist Alan Cheuse says, “We’re traveling light but we’re encumbered, like all wanderers, with the ineffable but ever-present baggage of everything that’s come before.”[1]

The early twentieth century anthropologist Bernard Malinowski (1884-1942) studied the Trobriand Islanders off the coast of New Guinea. They inspired his idea of a “charter myth” that provides a foundation for each culture. Malinowski made a distinction between myths and other stories like fairy tales or legends. For him a myth is a story that you see lived out in society. You can tell it is a myth because it affects how people act. It’s meaning is not confined to the story itself but includes its social context. Myths orient us, give our lives meaning, provide identity. They unavoidably show us who we belong to and what we hope for.

In an article on the Kennedy administration James Pierseson writes about the way that Jacqueline Kennedy invented the Camelot myth.[2] One week after President Kennedy’s assassination in an interview with Life Magazine she told a reporter that at bedtime she and her husband often listened to a cast recording of Camelot and in particular the following song. As King Arthur, Richard Burton sings: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Jacqueline Kennedy quoted that line and then said, “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.” Newspapers across the country covered this and sixty years later our impression of the time still is shaped by this metaphor. It makes us think of a kind of meritocracy, a circle of intelligent, well-meaning, reasonable, cosmopolitan, justice-seeking cabinet members from Harvard determining the country’s direction. It downplays the US role in invading neighboring Cuba and the escalation of hostilities in Vietnam.

This brings up another aspect of a charter myth. These often advance the agendas of the storytellers, of those who hold power and are invested in the status quo. It has been pointed out that Bronze Age Greek myths justify the institution and power of kings. Today we have a whole family of myths about capitalism, its efficiency and its relation to democracy, about hardworking Horatio Algers and companies like Hewlett Packard being founded in garages.[3] This myth justifies inconceivable levels of inequality and becomes a way to blame poor people for being poor. It justifies the global destruction of our environment and laying nature to waste.

This makes our passage today from The First Book of Samuel even more remarkable. In it the people pressure the prophet Samuel to install their first king who will, “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8). Doesn’t this story seem so apt in our never-ending twilight of a presidential election? God explains to Samuel, the tendency people have to treat their kings as if they were gods. God says, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” How remarkable to have a charter myth that undermines kings rather than justifying their power.

2. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospel of Mark stands in just this tradition. The parables of Jesus undermine hierarchies and dissolve the barriers that separate people from each other. Early Saturday morning I awoke from a confusing dream in which a younger friend (Joe Williams) was getting ordained even though he knew it would in some strange way cost him his life. The Book of Mark is like this. It depicts a world of menacing dark forces that undermine the good of creation. These demonic powers overrun our conscious life and dangerously twist our thoughts.

C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity imagines the life of faith as being part of the resistance in occupied Europe waiting for the rightful king to return. And that going to church is like listening in to the secret wireless radio broadcasts from our friends.[4]

Mark wrote his gospel in a society at such a temporal and geographical distance that it might at first seem kind of strange and primitive. Ordinarily, we may not talk about demons. But we know what it means for our inner life to be distorted, possessed or overpowered. Addiction and compulsive behavior touches all of our lives. We have struggled with anger and fear and thoughts that slip out of our control. We know the frustration of falling out of harmony with people we are supposed to love.

Problems with race in America never really get resolved as racism shifts into new and different channels. We see the way that sex is used to degrade people’s humanity. This week a caller to the Cathedral threatened to come here and rip down our Pride Steps. In my whole life I have never seen such a tidal wave of statements by politicians which undermine our legal system. We have demons in our time.

In an overcrowded home Jesus eats bread with friends. There are literal insiders and outsiders. Strangely his family and the authorities are on the outside. In our translation his family (hoi par’ autou), “went out to restrain him” because, “people were saying that, “he [had] gone out of his mind” (existēmi, Mk. 3).[5] The word for restrain is krateō it means to grasp, be strong, take possession of. It is related to our words for rule: democrat, autocrat, etc. The Greek god Kratos was the personification of strength, the brutal and merciless son of Pillas and Styx who bound Prometheus.[6]

Jesus’ moment seems so poignant to me. Have you ever felt discredited and doubted even by your family? But the darkness is rising. City lawyers from Jerusalem escalate the rhetoric. They don’t just say Jesus is normal crazy; he’s extra crazy. They say that the reason he can cast out demons is that he is possessed by Beelzebul, the supreme demon of all.

But Jesus does not let this myth-building stand. In this, the first, parable of the Gospel he changes the metaphor. Jesus says a house and a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Similarly Satan cannot be divided against himself either. Jesus says, if you are going to rob a strong man, you have to tie him up first. In other words, the world is Satan’s house and Jesus is binding Satan up by healing people, casting out demons and bringing hope for a kinder, more just world.

Jesus says, “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness.” In the past I have preached about this one verse because it has caused so much pain in history. Søren Kierkegaard’s father worried that he had committed the unforgivable sin.[7] It is up to us to decide if this is a message of forgiveness or the difficulty of forgiveness.

If sin is being caught up personally in this dynamic of participation in the destruction of oneself and others, it is hard for me to believe that God cannot extricate us, even when we cannot imagine how. Similarly I do not believe that Jesus is rejecting his mother and siblings at the end of this gospel reading. Instead Jesus is radically expanding our idea of who can belong so that “[w]hoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

3. So many of the ideas in this sermon come from my friend and neighbor Stephen Pearce. I learn so much from him even in casual interactions. He tells the story of one of his students, a fundamentalist Christian from South Korea. When this man was born he could not breastfeed and the doctors told his parents that he was the third child to be born like this in that hospital and that he probably would not live. Like the story of Hannah and Samuel, his father prayed over him, promising that if he survived the infant’s life would be dedicated to God.[8]

Growing up the boy was aware of this charter myth but it embarrassed him and made him uncomfortable. As he came closer to adulthood he realized that only he could make his father’s sworn oath come true and he resented this too. At this point his parents made him go on an eight-day religious retreat. He did not want to go, hated it once he arrived, and stayed on the periphery not really participating. Then on the last day, the leader asked everyone to turn to the person next to them and give them a blessing.

It turned out that of all the people in the room the young man was standing next to the person who he hated the most. He weakly put his hands on the man’s shoulders, but the man grabbed him in a big bear hug. In that moment a vast silence opened up inside him and he heard God say, “Even those you do not like are worthy of a blessing.” In that moment the myth that guide his life shifted.

In the summer before college I met a young woman in summer orientation. We stayed friends and her sorority sister became my girlfriend. We would go out on double dates with a young man at the fraternity next door. That man turned out to be my lifelong friend Bruce.

We got ordained at the same time and in those early days I consulted him about everything. We joke around a lot. Mostly we keep it pretty light. But yesterday his son Jeremy was ordained a priest right here. And as the bishops and priests laid their hands on him I watched my friend Bruce’s face. I have never seen that expression before. His face was coming alive with the glory of God. My myth started shifting and I began to see how God’s grace passes down through the generations.

Sometimes I share Mark’s picture of a capricious, chaotic, malicious, brutal existence. Sometimes the racism, hatred, anger, sexism, and dishonesty of our times are too much. Sometimes the demons just seem too powerful for me to feel okay as we carry “the ever-present baggage of everything that’s come before.”

But then I realize that Jesus has broken into Satan’s house and restrained him. When it seems like even our family does not understand, Jesus teaches that, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And then I remember my part in the play. I am a child of God. I am under the protection of Jesus.

[1] Carl Jung, Alan Cheuse, Branislaw Malinowski, and Camelot are also all part of this essay by my friend: Stephen S. Pearce, “Charter Narratives: An Essay Presented to the Chit Chat Club of San Francisco,” 14 May 2023.

[2] James Pierseson, “How Jackie Kennedy Invented the Camelot Legend after JFK’s Death,” The Daily Beast, 12 November 2013.

[3] “The garage at 367 Addison Avenue became a Silicon Valley icon. Dave and Bill worked there in 1938 and 1939 while living on the property, and it was there that they developed Hewlett-Packard’s first products.” From the company’s website:,developed%20Hewlett%2DPackard’s%20first%20products.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1943) 51.

[5] There are so many translation issues with this pericope. I would love someone to explain in detail why the word bread is left out and why this first reference is translated as family. I have a lot of other questions too.

[6] His siblings were: Nike (Victory), Bia (Force), and Zeleus (Glory).

[7] I wonder if John Calvin participated in the persecution and killing of Michael Servetus because he believed that his heresy constituted an unforgivable sin.

[8] Stephen S. Pearce, “Charter Narratives: An Essay Presented to the Chit Chat Club of San Francisco,” 14 May 2023

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“O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth.”

1. Near the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis’ children’s book about the apocalypse, the great Lion stands before a massive closed door which seems to have nothing behind its doorframe. He has just presented a bountiful banquet to a crowd of bickering dwarfs. But they are not able to see or experience it – as they eat the delicious pies, wines and ice creams, they think they are eating old hay, wilted cabbage leaves and putrid water. They complain and fight each other. One says, “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

The Lion explains to the children with him that the dwarfs, “will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Then the Lion goes to the door and roars so loudly that it could shake the stars. He calls, “Now it is time!” Time! Time! And the door to another world flies open.1

Today I am talking about the sabbath. We will think about what that word means, how ancient Hebrews practiced the sabbath, what questions it raised for them and for us today. But the simple thing I want to express is the idea of the sabbath as a kind of doorway into another world. We walk through the sabbath into a world which constantly changes our experience of this one, a world which helps us to see what is real and what is a distraction and what is an illusion.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) calls this “the Strange New World within the Bible.”2 It is ancient but deeply connected to the future. It is familiar in some ways and bizarre in others. It demands that we see what is ordinary in a totally new light. Above all this world helps us, “to reach far beyond ourselves,” for an answer which is “too large for us,” which we are not ready for yet. It brings us into contact with a solution for which we have not struggled or labored enough but which answers our deepest longings.

In that strange world we are with childless Sarah and Abraham as they decide to trust God’s outlandish promise that their descendants will be more numerous than the stars. We are with Moses in exile after he rashly murdered a man. Moses receives a wonderful second chance as God appears to him in a burning busy and announces that he will be

the greatest leader of all time. We are with Samuel at the tabernacle of Shiloh as he learns what it means to hear God speak. We are with prophets like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, called to speak out in defiance to kings, but who also promise that, “the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory will be seen by thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light.”3

And then we find ourselves in the presence of a gentle person who is not a prophet or doctor or poet or philosopher or hero, and “yet all of these and more.”4 His words alarm the authorities. With compelling power he says “Follow me!” He leaves even the most suspicious people with an irresistible impression of eternal life. In the face of doubt and cynicism Jesus gives us the hope that we too might be healed. You can hear the echo of his great impact today through the people who listen and watch and wait, the ones you see around you now, who share Jesus’ confidence in God’s love.5

Barth writes that the question, “What is in the Bible?” becomes, “What are your looking for?” Who are you? We were made for this question and the sabbath is the way we grow into the answer.

2. What is the sabbath historically? It is the seventh day of the Jewish week. According to the Ten Commandments one should abstain from work on this day.6 Sabbath has two different origin stories. The Book of Exodus (Ex. 20:11) describes it as a way we imitate God who rested after creating the world in six days. The other explanation comes from the Book of Deuteronomy in which sabbath reminds the people that God delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. God has given them a freedom to not work and sabbath ensures that they exercise this freedom.

According to the First Book of Maccabees Gentiles in the century before the birth of Jesus attack faithful Jews who because they are keeping the sabbath refuse to retaliate. They say, “Let us die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly…” (1 Macc. 2). A thousand of them are slaughtered and the leaders resolve to defend themselves in the future.

The Hebrew phrase Pikuach Nefesh means to save a life or soul. It refers to the conviction that saving a life takes precedence over keeping the sabbath. Jesus extends this to healing a man with a damaged hand. You can hear his heartbreak that religious leaders of his time object to healing someone on the sabbath.7 He says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 3).

What is the sabbath for us as twenty-first century people? In scripture sabbath has two purposes. It is a day set apart for worshiping God. It is also a day for rest and recreation.

It reminds us that our value as human beings is not just about what we produce. Sabbath shows us that we should not treat our work or career as a god. Life is not just about accomplishment, not just about becoming but about being. It is about enjoying the blessings that God longs for us to receive.

Different people may interpret this in various ways but the sabbath reminds me that we have an obligation to go to church, to participate in worship with others. We are not complete as we are. The prayers, readings and hymns expose us to the strange new world of the Bible which transforms how we experience the world and act in it.

3. Let me give three examples of what we might learn as we mature in faith. The novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) believed that he could communicate theological truths in his fictional stories. He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer. In it the main character Binx Bolling describes his spiritual quest saying, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”8 On the sabbath, the world of scripture reminds us that we were made to search for God and that abandoning this pilgrimage leaves us empty.

In Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss,” a shy, diminutive and frankly ugly army officer with “spectacles, sloping shoulders and whiskers like a lynx’s” goes to an elegant party.9 The other officers are dancing or playing billiards. Having, “nothing to do” he wanders around the house. On his way back he gets mixed up and finds himself in a dark room. Suddenly he hears, “hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress [and] a breathless feminine voices whispers, “At last! [It’s you!].” She throws her arms around him and kisses him. Immediately she realizes it is the wrong person and hurries off before he can compose himself.

For the rest of the evening the officer keeps recalling the way she smelled, the feeling of her arms around him and her lips on his cheek. He wonders which of the women at the party it was. Chekhov writes, “an intense groundless joy took possession of him.” For months he keeps going back in his memory to that moment. Much later he returns to that town and sees the mansion from across the water. He realizes that that moment of intimacy was not meant for him, and that he would always be alone. “And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to [him] an unintelligible and aimless jest.”

This reminds me of how we feel when we see someone waving, and then wave back only to realize that they were waving at someone else. There is a deep hurt in many of us who feel like no one will ever love us. No one will say “At last! It’s you!” Some of us may wonder if people would still love us if they really knew what we had done or who we are. When we are in this frame of mind, the strange world of the Bible reminds us that Jesus constantly teaches that God loves us as a father. Jesus shows us that we are not defined by the worse things we have thought and done, that there is always a chance for reconciliation.

When we look at the news of the week, the conviction of a former United States president, the intractable suffering in the Middle East and Ukraine, it can feel like there is no agreed upon foundation for how we treat each other. The historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) writes that there are three basic strategies when things fall apart.10 First is what he calls archaism or nostalgia. I see this in myself when I long for the church of my childhood. This is also the appeal of the slogan Make America Great Again. But we simply cannot go back to the past. Social changes, patterns of migration, changes in business and technology cannot simply be reversed.

Toynbee calls the second strategy for dealing with change, futurism. This is to dismiss the importance of the past and present in order to focus our decisions only on an imagined future. The third strategy is what people do when the first two do not work. It is to opt out or withdraw for the sake of preserving ourselves.

But there is a fourth way. It is more clearly articulated in the Bible than anywhere else. It is a way of living in the present, of living in the presence God or being in Christ. This way folds the past and the future into this moment. The tradition calls this Nunc Eternum or The Eternal now. It is the source of the joy that we see in deeply faithful people. It is a trust in God’s never-failing providence.11

Who are we? What are we looking for? Like the dwarfs of The Last Battle, we have been so afraid of being taken in that we have often chosen cunning over belief. For the span of a moment we can come to see our life as a rich banquet but we inevitably forget. Thank you for being part of this Grace Cathedral sabbath, for celebrating God’s creativity and God’s gift of freedom. Thank you for believing in the search for something more, for listening to God’s voice in the Eternal Now saying, “At last. It’s you.” O Lord shake the stars and open for us that door to the other world. It is time. Time. Time.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (NY: Harper Collins, 1956) 168-170.

2 Karl Barth, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1928) 28-50.

3 “The LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(Isa 60:2-3). Also from Handel’s Messiah:

4 “Then comes the incomprehensible, incomparable days, when all previous time, history, and experience seem to stand still – like the sun at Gideon – in the presence of a man who was no prophet, no poet, no hero, no thinker, and yet all of these and more! His words cause alarm, for he speaks with authority and not as we ministers. With compelling power he calls to each one: Follow me! Even to the distrustful and antagonistic he gives an irresistible impression of “eternal life.” “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, [31] and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” “Blessed is the womb that bare thee,” cry the people. And the quieter and lonelier he becomes, and the less real “faith” he finds in the world about him, the stronger through his whole being peals one triumphant note: “I am the resurrection and the life! Because I live — ye shall live also!”

And then comes the echo, weak enough, if we compare it with that note of Easter morning-and yet strong, much too strong for our ears, accustomed as they are to the weak, pitiably weak tones of to-day—the echo which this man’s life finds in a little crowd of folk who listen, watch, and wait. Here is the echo of the first courageous missionaries who felt the necessity upon them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Here is the echo of Paul: “The righteousness of God is revealed! If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. And he which hath begun a good work in you will finish it!” Here is the deep still echo of John: “Life was manifested… We beheld his glory… Now are we the sons of God. … And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Karl Barth, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1928) 28-50

5 We are with Saul the persecutor of Christians as he becomes transformed into Paul, “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4).

6 The Book of Leviticus describes it as a time of complete rest for gathering in worship.

7 “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mk. 3:5).

8 “Then it is that the idea of the search occurs to me. I become absorbed and for a minute or so forget about the girl.

What is the nature of the search? you ask.

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (NY: Ivy Books, 1960) 9.

9 Anton Chekhov, “The Kiss.”

10 Alan Jones, “Sermon: The Second Sunday after Pentecost,” Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, 28 May 1989.

11 Today’s collect, that is, the prayer that gathers all of our prayers together and is changed every week which starts out our Sunday services has often puzzled me. It says, “O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth…” I do not think this means that God controls every last detail of our lives using terrible things that happen to us for some greater good. Instead it means that there is a way that God orders everything in creation. We come closer to understanding this through the possibilities opened in the sabbath.

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May we receive what Jesus wanted his friends to have. Amen.

1. “We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us.”[1] Gary Wills wrote this about the impossibility of fully comprehending God. Still, we can draw closer to the Holy One. I am grateful for friends who help me to see God in new ways.

This week my friend Norwood Pratt sent me an article which begins with a poem by Li Bai (701-762). According to legend he died in the year 762 drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River. Li Bai writes, “The birds have vanished from the sky. / Now the last cloud drains away // We sit together, the mountain and me, / until only the mountain remains.”[2] For me this expresses the feeling of unity with God that comes to me in prayer.

This poet was one of many inspirations for a modern Chinese American poet named Li-Young Lee (1957-). Lee’s father immigrated to the United States and served as a Presbyterian pastor at an all-white church in western Pennsylvania. Infinity and eternity fascinate him. In this poem he writes about how in the uniqueness of our nature and experiences we all encounter in a different way the “Ultimate Being, Tao or God.” This is this beloved one, the darling.

Lee writes, “My friend and I are in love with the same woman… I’d write a song about her.  I wish I could sing. I’d sing about her. / I wish I could write a poem. / Every line would be about her. / Instead, I listen to my friend speak / about this woman we both love, / and I think of all the ways she is unlike / anything he says about her and unlike / everything else in the world.”[3]

These two poets write about something that cannot easily be expressed, our deepest desire to be united with God. Jesus speaks about this in the Gospel of John: in his last instructions to the disciples and then in his passionate prayer for them, and for us. In his last words Jesus uses a surprising metaphor for encountering the mystery of God. We meet God through friendship.

On Mother’s Day when we celebrate the sacrifices associated with love I want to think more with you about friendship and God. To understand the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching, it helps to see how another great historical figure understood this subject.

2. Long before Jesus’ birth the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) studied at Plato’s school in Athens (from the age of 17 to 37). After this Aristotle became the tutor of Alexander the Great and founded a prominent library that he used as the basis for his thought. Scholars estimate that about a third of what Aristotle wrote has survived. He has had a huge effect on the western understanding of nature. He also especially influenced the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and therefore modern Roman Catholic approaches to Christian thought.

For Aristotle God is eternal, non-material, unchanging and perfect. He famously describes God as the unmoved mover, existing outside of the world and setting it into motion. Because everything seeks divine perfection, this God is responsible for all change in the universe. We experience a world of particular things but God knows the universal ideas behind them (or before them). For Aristotle God is pure thought, eternally contemplating himself. God is the telos, the goal or end of all things.[4]

Aristotle begins his book Nicomachean Ethics by observing that “Happiness… is the End at which all actions aim.”[5] Everything we do ultimately can be traced back to our desire for happiness and the purpose of Aristotle’s book is to help the reader to attain this goal. Happiness comes from having particular virtues, that is habitual ways of acting and seeking pleasure. These include: courage, temperance, generosity, patience. In our interactions with others we use social virtues including: amiability, sincerity, wit. Justice is the overarching virtue that encompasses all the others.

Aristotle writes that there are three kinds of friendships. The first is based on usefulness, the second on pleasure. Because these are based on superficial qualities they generally do not last long. The final and best form of friendship for him is based on strength of character. These friends do not love each other for what they can gain but because they admire each other. Aristotle believes that this almost always happens between equals although sometimes one sees it in the relation between parents and children (he writes fathers and sons).

Famous for describing the human as the political animal, Aristotle points out that we can only accomplish great things through cooperation. Institutions and every human group rely on friendly feelings to be effective. Friendship is key to what makes human beings effective, and for that matter, human. Finally, Aristotle believes that although each person should be self-sufficient, friendship is important for a good life.

3. The Greek word for Gospel, that particular form of literature which tells the story of Jesus, is euangelion. We might forget that this word means good news until we get a sense for the far more radical picture of God and friendship that Jesus teaches. For me, one of the defining and unique features of Christianity as a religion comes from Jesus’ insistence that our relation to God is like a child to a loving father. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Jesus clarifies this picture of God in his story of the Prodigal Son who goes away and squanders his wealth in a kind of first century Las Vegas. In the son’s destitution he returns home and as he crests the hill, his father “filled with compassion,” hikes up his robes and runs to hug and kiss him.

Jesus does not just use words but physical gestures to show what a friend is. In today’s gospel Jesus washes his friends’ feet before eating his last meal with them. The King James Version says, “there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23).[6] Imagine Jesus, in the actual embrace of his beloved friend, telling us who God is.

Jesus explicitly says I do not call you servants but friends (Jn. 15). A servant does not know what the master is doing but a friend does. And you know that the greatest commandment is to love one another. Later in prayer he begs God to protect us from the world, “so that [we] may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves]” (Jn. 17).

4. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332-395) was born ten years after the First Council of Nicaea and attended the First Council of Constantinople. He writes about how so many ordinary people were arguing about doctrine, “If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son was begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of the bread you will receive the answer, ‘The father is the greater and the Son is lesser.’ If you suggest a bath is desirable you will be told, ‘There was nothing before the Son was created.’”[7]

Gregory with his friends Basil and Gregory Nazianzus wondered what description of Jesus would lead to faith rather than just argument.[8] Gregory of Nyssa came to believe that the image of God is only fully displayed when every human person is included.[9] In his final book The Life of Moses Gregory responds to a letter from a younger friend who seeks counsel on “the perfect life.”[10]

Gregory writes that Moses exemplifies this more than all others because Moses is a friend to God. True perfection is not bargaining with, pleading, tricking, manipulating, or fearing God. It is not avoiding a wicked life out of fear of punishment. It is not to do good because we hope for some reward, as if we are cashing in on the virtuous life through a business contract.

Gregory closes with these words to his young admirer, “we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only dreadful thing… and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This… is the perfection of life. As your understanding is lifted up to what is magnificent and divine, whatever you may find… will certainly be for the common benefit in Christ Jesus.”[11]

On Thursday night I was speaking about this to Paul Fromberg the Rector of St. Gregory’s church and he mentioned a sophisticated woman who became a Christian there. In short she moved from Aristotle’s view of friendship among superior equals to Jesus’ view. She said, “Because I go to church I can have real affection for people who annoy the shit out of me. My affection is no longer just based on affinity.”[12]

5. I have been thoroughly transformed by Jesus’ idea of friendship. My life has become full of Jesus’ friends, full of people who I never would have met had if I followed Aristotle’s advice. Together we know that in Christ unity does not have to mean uniformity.

Before I close let me tell you about a friend I had at Christ Church in Los Altos. Even by the time I met her Alice Larse she was only a few years away from being a great-grandmother. She and her husband George had grown up together in Washington State. He had been an engineer and she nursed him through his death from Alzheimer’s disease. Some of my favorite memories come from the frequent summer pool parties she would have for our youth groups. She must have been in her sixties when she started a “Alice’s Stick Cookies Company.” Heidi and I saw them in a store last week!

At Christ Church we had a rotating homeless shelter and there were several times when Alice, as a widow living by herself, had various shelter guests stay at her house. When the church was divided about whether or not to start a school she quickly volunteered to serve as senior warden. She was not sentimental. She was thoroughly practical. She was humble. She got things done… but with a great sense of humor.

There was no outward indication that she was really a saint. I missed her funeral two weeks ago because of responsibilities here. I never really had the chance to say goodbye but I know that one day we will be together in God. Grace Cathedral has hundreds of saints just like her who I love in a similar way.

Ram Dass was a dear friend of our former Dean Alan Jones. He used to say, “The name of the game we are in is called ‘Being at one with the Beloved.’[13] The Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich writes that God possesses, “a love-longing to have us all together, wholly in himself for his delight; for we are not now wholly in him as we shall be…” She says that you and I are Jesus’ joy and bliss.[14] God gives us each other in part so that we can learn to love him.

We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us.”[15] In a world where friendship can seem to be only for utility or pleasure I pray that like Jesus, you will be blessed by friends, that you will find perfection of life, and even become friends with God.

1 Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (NY: Viking, 1999) xii.

2 Li Bai, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” tr. Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000). About 1000 poems attributed to Li still exist.

3 Ed Simon, “There’s Nothing in the World Smaller than the Universe: In The Invention of the Darling, Li-Young Lee presents divinity as spirit and matter, profound and quotidian, sacred and profane,” Poetry Foundation. This article quotes, “The Invention of the Darling.”

4 More from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Aristotle made God passively responsible for change in the world in the sense that all things seek divine perfection. God imbues all things with order and purpose, both of which can be discovered and point to his (or its) divine existence. From those contingent things we come to know universals, whereas God knows universals prior to their existence in things. God, the highest being (though not a loving being), engages in perfect contemplation of the most worthy object, which is himself. He is thus unaware of the world and cares nothing for it, being an unmoved mover. God as pure form is wholly immaterial, and as perfect he is unchanging since he cannot become more perfect. This perfect and immutable God is therefore the apex of being and knowledge. God must be eternal. That is because time is eternal, and since there can be no time without change, change must be eternal. And for change to be eternal the cause of change-the unmoved mover-must also be eternal. To be eternal God must also be immaterial since only immaterial things are immune from change. Additionally, as an immaterial being, God is not extended in space.”

5 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library vol. XIX (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975) 30-1.

6 h™n aÓnakei÷menoß ei–ß e˙k tw◊n maqhtw◊n aujtouv e˙n twˆ◊ ko/lpwˆ touv ∆Ihsouv, o§n hjga¿pa oJ ∆Ihsouvß (John 13:23). I don’t understand why the NRSV translation translate this as “next to him” I think that Herman Waetjen regards “in Jesus’ bosom” as correct. Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 334.

7 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 105.

8 Ibid., 108.

9 From Jesse Hake, “An Intro to Saint Gregory of Nyssa and his Last Work: The Life of Moses,” 28 July 2022: “For example, Gregory says that the image of God is only fully displayed when every human person is included, so that the reference in Genesis to making humanity in God’s image is actually a reference to all of humanity as one body (which is ultimately the body of Jesus Christ that is also revealed at the end of time): In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image …extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).”

10 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, “Preface” by John Myendorff (NY: Paulist Press, 1978) 29.

11 Ibid., 137.

12 Paul Fromberg conversation at One Market, Thursday 9 May 2024.

13 Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 53.

14 Quoted in Isaac S. Villegas, “Christian Theology is a Love Story,” The Christian Century, 25 April 2018.

15 Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (NY: Viking, 1999) xii.

Dear Friends,

“A place where lives are changed” was the old motto for the Bishop’s Ranch retreat center up in Healdsburg, California. My life was changed over and over in that place.

I remember talking about Ovid by the fireplace with Stanford and Berkeley students in 1986. As a newly ordained priest, I met David Forbes and Mark Stanger there. In those days I always listened closely to what Grace Cathedral Dean Alan Jones said about the life of faith. I remember leading my first retreat there; my topic was “American Literary Transcendentalism.” Our daughter was learning to walk one spring and I can picture her toddling along the stone wall in front of the Ranch House as if it were yesterday. Our choristers spend a week there every summer, and I treasure their last weekend when I join them.

This year our Congregation retreat will be taking place at the Bishop’s Ranch from May 25-27 (Memorial Day weekend). I can’t wait to be there myself with Mary Carter Greene and I strongly urge you to register right away to save your space.

On Saturday at 11 am, we will be having the first ordination of a bishop since Bishop Bill Swing was ordained here on September 29, 1979. Bishop Marc Andrus had already been ordained to the Episcopate in Alabama when he was installed here in 2006. There will be about 35 bishops and guests from around the world in attendance for the Rev. Austin Keith Rios’ consecration. Old friends of the cathedral are in town like Mark Stanger (who will be preaching at 11 am on Sunday) and Charles Shipley (who delivered a beautiful red cope for me to wear in the service). Sarah Ogilvie will be here for the 9:30 am Forum (on her book The Dictionary People). I’m sure we will see many other familiar visitors.

We have plans in case it is raining and expect to provide communion to anyone who is here on the cathedral campus, whether or not they have a space in the Nave during the service.

Grace Cathedral is also a place where lives are changed. Every week, hundreds of people visit us. We open a door to them so that they may step inside and experience a new wholeness and holiness. As we get close to the end of our fiscal year in June, I encourage you to find a way to support the cathedral either through a financial gift or by volunteering.

I look forward to seeing you here!


Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Mysterious God we have lost our home. We are wandering. Help us to hear your call and find ourselves again in you. Amen.”

1. In wild places I have heard the voice of God… From the time beyond human remembering there existed an island called by the first people Limuw. Every spring fantastic cumulous clouds raced over orange and yellow flower-covered mountain slopes. The fast moving streams, canyons, prairies, oak woodlands, cobbled beaches, tidepools and white foamy waters teamed with life. Thousands of birds nested on the cliffs among the waterfalls.1

But something was missing. And so Hutash, the name for the Spirit of the Earth, planted a new kind of seed. From these, the ground put forth the first people and the island was complete. Thus begins a story perhaps older than human writing told by people known today as the Chumash. You may know this place as Santa Cruz Island. It is the largest island in California and lies in the archipelago off the coast of Santa Barbara.

“The Rainbow Bridge” story goes on. Hutash taught the people how to take care of themselves and their island home. For many years they thrived and multiplied until Limuw became too crowded. Then Kakanupmawa, the mystery behind the sun, conferred with Hutash and they agreed that the people needed a bigger place. So they gathered them on the mountain peak and caused a rainbow to stretch over the sea to a broader land. Some of the people easily crossed over. But others became distracted and dizzied by the waters far below them. They fell from the rainbow bridge into the ocean waters where they were transformed into dolphins.

In wild places I have heard the voice of God. When dolphins join me as I surf at Ocean Beach my heart expands with ecstatic joy. It always feels like such a holy encounter. But not only does the story concern the deep kinship between dolphins and humans, some believe it might even be about sea level changes that are part of the geologic record. At the end of the last ice age when the sea level was about 400 feet lower the four channel islands were joined together. As the seas rose, the population that the four separate islands could support decreased forcing people to move to the mainland.

Rosanna Xia tells this story in her book California Against the Sea because she hopes that the massive rise in the sea level could be an opportunity for human beings to mend their relationship with the ocean and the rest of the earth. During the last one hundred years the sea has risen by nine inches. Before the end of our century in the lifetime of the youngest people here, the sea will probably rise by six to seven feet.2

Human beings caused and continue to produce a catastrophic change in the composition of our atmosphere. Almost one third of the carbon dioxide released by human beings since the Industrial Revolution and more than 90% of the resulting heat has been absorbed by our oceans. Carbon dioxide mixing with ocean water causes a chemical reaction that increases the acidity of the seas. The oceans are absorbing the heat equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs detonating every second.3 We are the first generation to experience the effects of climate change and the last generation that can make a substantially different course possible.4 We know this but don’t really comprehend it. It’s hard to be continuously conscious of such a danger, and of such a grave responsibility.

2. In the face of our situation Jesus gives us very good news. During the last weeks of Easter our readings show us how to live in intimacy with God. Today’s gospel comes from the last meal Jesus shares with his friends before being killed. Imagine the tangible fear in that room as he prepares them for his departure from this world. It must have been like a last meal at San Quentin Prison before a prisoner is executed.

Thomas says, “How can we know the way?” Jesus responds with the last of seven “I am” statements. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am…” “the bread of life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door” (10:7), “the Good Shepherd” (10:11). And today he says, “I am the true vine and my father is the vinegrower” (Jn. 15).5

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” He uses the image of the vine, organic and integrally connected, to prepare his friends for his death. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he says. It is almost as if he is reassuring them, “Death will not separate us. I will not be leaving you. We will become even more intimately connected. Do not be afraid.”6

Jesus goes on. “You will see evidence of our connection. Look at your life and the lives of those who follow me and see the richness of this fruit.” I do not read this as a threat. It is not “stay with me or you will wither and perish.” It is the promise that we do not need to worry, that we are in this together. Jesus is saying our companionship will be even closer than we can imagine. We walk side by side today. In the future we will be abide in Jesus and bring good news to the world.

Other examples of this persist in the Bible. In Genesis, God breathes spirit into us and sustains our life. In Galatians, Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.”7 The Book of Acts describes God as the one, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”8

One might even say that the culmination of Jesus’ teaching is about abiding in God. Our goal is not simply to follow Jesus, or to convince others to, or even primarily to obey what he taught. We live in Jesus as he lives in us. This experience of intimacy lies at the heart of my faith and of my understanding of the earth. In wild places I have heard the voice of God.

3. As a student of religion I carefully studied the connection between the spirit of God and the natural world.9 Many of us here have experienced a kind of transcendence in nature, a moment when everything changes, when the cosmos seems clear. These encounters show that our picture of God is too small. When we begin to glimpse how interrelated all life is, we cannot go back to pretending that one individual, or group, or nation, or species can thrive alone. Religion stops being another form of tribalism and becomes an opening in our hearts to wonder and gratitude and love. Let me talk about two people whose lives were changed in this way by meeting God in nature.

As a young man Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) served as the minister of the Second Church of Boston (Unitarian). It was founded in 1650, almost exactly 200 years before Grace Cathedral. He would make pastoral visits to Revolutionary War veterans and just did not know what to say. The prospect of writing a sermon every week for the rest of his life scared him. Philosophically he was not sure what it meant to consecrate bread and wine during communion services. Then the wife who he simply adored died at the age of twenty from tuberculosis and his life fell apart. He was inconsolable. He resigned his pastorate, sold all his household furniture and departed on Christmas Day across the gray expanse of the North Atlantic with the hope that he might find himself.

In 1836 Emerson published what he discovered in a short book called Nature. Feeling confined and limited by tradition and the past, Emerson stopped believing in them. He gave up faith in the promise that we could learn about what really matters from someone else. Instead he believed that we should experience God firsthand and that “Nature is a symbol of spirit.10 He writes, “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear… In the woods, we return to reason and faith… all mean egotism vanishes… the currents of Universal Being circulate though me; I am part or parcel of God.”11

Later he writes, “behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present… the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.”12 Emerson encouraged his young friend Henry David Thoreau to begin keeping a journal and later allowed him to build a cabin on his land by the shore of Walden Pond.

Generations later in 1975 a 29 year old woman after finishing her master’s thesis on Thoreau won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in a book recording her own encounter of nature and spirit. Her name was Annie Dillard and the memoir about living along a creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains was called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Without flinching Dillard sees the frightening vastness of the void, the uncountable number of swarming insects. She writes about the water bug injecting poison that liquifies its prey.

Quoting Pascal and Einstein, Annie Dillard wonders if our modern understanding of God has spread, “as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way that we can only feel blindly of its hem.”13

In this theological and liturgical book (it follows the Christian year into Advent), Dillard regards the great beauty of this world as grace, as a gift from God. At the end she concludes, “Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no… You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked… You see the creatures die, and you know that you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life… I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door… Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret and holy and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see.”14

The seas are rising. How can we know the way? God speaks to us through nature – often in ways that we do not expect, sometimes in ways that are not altogether comfortable for us. But we will not hear if we do not listen. Let us mend our relation to the earth, and build a bridge to a more humane civilization.

Jesus, the true vine, reminds us that at the core of every being is the power to love. We will never be truly isolated or alone. He will always abide in us. In wild places I have heard the voice of God.

1 Rosanna Xia, California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline (Berkeley, California: Heydey Books, 2023) 1-3.

2 By the time a child born today retires, the low tide will be higher than the highest high tide we have ever seen. Cities and even whole countries will be washed away.

3 Ibid., 17.

4 Jay Inslee and then quoted by Barak Obama, Ibid., 294.

5 Also “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25), “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). The Greek word for vineyard and vine (ampelos) are the same – sometimes I wonder how it might feel different to think of Jesus as the true vineyard.

6 Matthew Boulton, “Abide in Me: SALT’s Commentary for Easter 5), SALT, 22 April 2022.

7 “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NRSV, Galatians 2:20).

8 “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (NRSV, Acts. 17:28).

9 Malcolm Clemens Young, “The Natural World,” in The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 2017) 374ff.

10 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957) 31.

11 “In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,— all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Ibid., 24.

12 “But when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man; that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old. As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws at his need inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man?” Ibid., 50.

13 “In the Koran, Allah asks, “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?” It’s a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an un-thinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest? Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s, once having called forth the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears round the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey? “God is subtle,” Einstein said, “but not malicious.” Again, Einstein said that “nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.” It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat? Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (NY: Harper & Row, 1974) 7.

14 “Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone. You have finally understood that you’re dealing with a maniac.
I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.” Ibid., 268.

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23).

When I was at Harvard, on the advice of a friend who is a nun, I decided to take a leadership course at the Kennedy School of Government. My fellow classmates came from twenty-six countries and included CEO’s, a judge, a District Attorney, an army general, a state senator, the founder of an investment bank, the co-founder of a Political Action Committee, an ambassador, a university dean, the head administrator for airports in Israel, etc.

Our teacher Ronald Heifetz changed who I am. He spoke with uncanny and absolutely non-defensive frankness. He had an MD, practiced as a surgeon, and had previously taught at Harvard Medical School. He was a cello virtuoso who had studied under Gregor Piatagorsky and music was central to his understanding of leadership.1

This week I read all my class notes – everything from doodles that spelled my wife’s Hawaiian name in Greek letters to quotes with three stars in the margin (such as, “in disagreements the first value we lose sight of is the ability to be curious”).2 The syllabus says directly that the course’s goal is, “to increase one’s capacity to sustain the demands of leadership.” It was perfect preparation for the rest of my life.

On the first day Heifetz said, “if you are going through a difficult time I strongly urge you not to take this course.” He was right. This was not an ordinary lecture class but a seemingly entirely improvised discussion. Heifetz would start by saying something like, “What do we want to address today?” It felt strangely dangerous. Nothing was going to come easy or be handed to us on a silver platter. We talked about the feeling in class and agreed it was tense.

At one point in the early lectures Heifetz just stopped being an authority figure for a while. In the resulting chaos we learned how much we all crave authority and guiding norms. It felt more like a Werner Erhard seminar than a Harvard lecture.

Heifetz might not always say it directly but he regards leadership above all as a spiritual practice. The motivations for good leadership are spiritual. The character and the skills that we need to develop for leadership are spiritual. To be effective we have to recognize forces that were previously invisible to us and experience the world with intuition and based on a real understanding of ourselves. Leadership success requires curiosity, compassion, wisdom, honesty, courage, humility, self-knowledge and the right balance between detachment and passion.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus faces accusers who seek to kill him. He uses the metaphor of a leader as a good shepherd. This idea was already ancient in his time and mentioned in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Psalms. You might be thinking, “No one listens to me since I retired,” or, “I’m at the lowest level in my company, or I’m just a kid, what could leadership possibly have to do with me?”

Heifetz makes a central distinction between authority and leadership. Authority comes from one’s institutional standing and involves managing people’s expectations.3 Jesus was not the Roman governor or the high priest. He did not have this authority.

Leadership on the other hand means mobilizing resources to make progress on difficult problems.4 In many instances people exercise more powerful leadership without having formal authority than with it. Jesus did. And make no mistake Jesus expects each of us to act as leaders regardless of our formal or informal authority. We exist to glorify God and to help solve the problems we encounter. For homework I invite you this week to consciously exercise leadership that is inspired by Jesus.

1. Adaptive Challenges. This morning I am going to do the opposite of what my teacher did, I am going to speak directly and briefly about three of his observations concerning leadership.5 One of Heifetz’s primary ideas concerns the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge. A technical problem is one that we already know how to respond to; best practices, if you will, already exist. It may be simple like setting a broken bone or incredibly complicated like putting a person on the moon, but an expert, a mechanic, surgeon or rocket scientist, already knows how to handle it.6

An adaptive challenge is different. No adequate response has been developed for it. I have in mind our terrible problem of people without housing, racial prejudice, addiction, education, misinformation, poverty, war, white Christian nationalism, election denial, despair, isolation, etc. It is tempting to treat an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical problem, to look to an authority to solve that problem for us. But problems like this require cooperation among groups of people who are seeking solutions, not pretending to already know all the answers.

What was Jesus’ adaptive challenge? His disciples thought it was overthrowing the Roman Empire or enthroning a king who shared their identity. But this was not it. Instead Jesus was what the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the New Being.” Jesus inaugurated a new way of being human which he called “the realm of God” in which all people would be healed, cared for and treated with dignity. It is a realm of spiritual well-being in which we experience God as a kind of loving father such as the father in the Prodigal Son story. This is what Jesus means when he says, “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10).

As a spiritual community Grace Cathedral shares this adaptive challenge of working for the realm of God. And in a society where Christianity is justifiably associated with misogyny, homophobia and unkindness we offer a vision of community in which anyone can belong before they believe. On the basis of our conviction that every person without exception is beloved by God we have taken on the adaptive challenge of transforming Christianity, of reimagining church with courage, joy and wonder.7

2. Strategic Principles. Heifetz speaks a great deal about the practical work of leadership. He describes this as creating a kind of holding container for people working on the problem and then paying attention to one’s own feelings to understand the mind of the group.

Leadership involves uncovering and articulating the adaptive challenge. A leader also needs to manage the anxiety of the group. People have to be concerned enough to want to act but not so afraid that they will give up in hopelessness. Because human beings tend to avoid hard challenges, a leader needs to keep the group focused on the problem not just on trying to relieve the stress the group is feeling. This involves giving the work back to people at a rate they can assimilate. He also points out how important it is to protect leaders who do not have authority so that they can contribute to the solution.8

3. Values. Heifetz taught us that the best leaders have such a deep feeling for their mission they will, if necessary, sacrifice themselves for the higher purpose. Heifetz refers to the leaders getting (metaphorically, mostly I hope) assassinated. This happens when the stress a leader generates in order to solve a problem becomes so great that the leader gets expelled. This is how I understand Jesus’ life. Jesus talks about this.

In today’s gospel the Greek the word kalos which we translate as good, as in Good Shepherd, probably means something more like real or genuine. Jesus says that the hired hand is there for the transaction, for the payment, but the real shepherd has the power (ezousian often translated as authority) to lay down his life (the Greek word is psuxēn or soul) for the sake of the sheep. Many leaders at some point have to decide whether to keep pushing for uncomfortable change even when they know it might mean they will be forced to leave.

Before closing I want to briefly tell you about a leader who shaped us, our first dean, J. Wilmer Gresham. Dean Gresham moved to San Jose California for health reasons. In 1910 at the age of 39 when he was asked to become the first Dean of Grace Cathedral he hesitated wondering if the damp cold of San Francisco would kill him. Almost immediately after moving here to this block, he discerned his adaptive challenges: to build this Cathedral and to begin a ministry of healing that involved organizing groups to gather for prayer that gradually became an national movement. He helped so many people privately, financially. Trusting God he gave all of himself.9

After serving almost 30 years Dean Gresham retired and a year later his wife Emily Cooke Graham died. Many evenings he would stand on the sidewalk in front of their old home weeping for her. He found so much comfort in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that he gave a stained glass window in the South Transept in her memory. He did this so that we would know that like the sheep in the arms of Jesus we are loved by God.

At the end of our leadership course Ronald Heifetz reminded us that he had told us at the beginning that he would disappoint us. He talked about how at times the teaching staff too had felt that we were wandering in the desert, that some students might have felt hurt or misrepresented. But most of all he taught us how to say goodbye.

Heifetz promised that we could shed light in our life even when there is no light around us. He said that the God of the Greek philosopher Archimedes was called “the unmoved mover.” But Heifetz said that he believed much more in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of God as “the most moved mover.”

My dear ones, we are all called to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s realm. But we are not left without comfort. We have each other and we always have the Good Shepherd. Jesus teaches that God loves us the way that a faithful teacher loves her students or a father treasures his lost child.

1 His brother Daniel was a professional violinist. But none of these things can account for what made him so mysterious, so unique.

2 Ronald Heifetz, Course Notes from “Exercising Leadership: Mobilizing Group Resources,” PAL 101, The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 29 October 1992.

3 If people don’t like what someone is saying, and have the power to do so, they may remove an authority figure.

4 “I define leadership as an activity, not as a set of personality characteristics. So what I’m interested in is developing people’s capacity to perform a particular activity, and I call this activity “leadership.” And the activity of leadership I define as the mobilization of the resources of a people or an organization to make progress on the difficult problems it faces.”
“Leadership Expert: Ronald Heifetz,” INC Magazine, October 1988.

5 Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to learn leadership in the same way at church on a Sunday morning? It would definitely be unsettling at times.

6 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 71-3.

7 Reimaging church with courage, joy and wonder is our cathedral mission statement.

8 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 128.

9 LaVonne Neff, “Introduction,” in J. Wilmer Gresham, Wings of Healing: On Faith for Daily Life (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000).

My Dear Siblings, 

I greet you on a spectacular spring day with the tides rising at Ocean Beach before the afternoon wind dissipates the morning surfers. The hills around our city are in motion with the spring grass; the mustard wildflowers are beginning their march down the hillsides. The cumulous clouds have been so magnificent this spring, haven’t they? It’s been one of the best years for clouds in recent memory. 

On Sunday we baptized 7 more infants after baptizing and receiving 24 adults last week at the Easter Vigil. What a blessing it is to be with each of these people on their pilgrimage as Christians walking on the Anglican way that has sustained so many of us over the years. 

Above all today I am grateful for you. It would be impossible for Grace Cathedral to function without scores of volunteers. Greeters, Singers, Coffee Hour chefs, Ushers, Sunday School leaders, Congregation Council Members, Trustees, our sewing and knitting volunteers, EfM Scholars, Small group participants, etc. Cathedral ministry is special and requires us all to hone our skills as hosts. I’m so grateful for all that you do here. 

One very important way that you might serve here is as a docent. Please let me know if you are interested in learning more about this ministry. 

This Sunday (April 15) at the 9:30 a.m. Forum and the 11:00 a.m. service we will be hearing from Rev’d Jim Wallis, probably one of the most famous Christians of our time. I’m looking forward to learning his perspective on what is happening now across this country as he visits various churches. 

With the story of Thomas fresh in our minds from our Sunday Gospel reading, below is a poem by Denise Levertov. 


Denise Levertov, “On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus” 

It is for all 
‘literalists of the imagination,’ 
poets or not, 
that miracle 
is possible, 
possible and essential. 
Are some intricate minds 
on concept, 
as epiphytes flourish 
high in the canopy? 
Can they 
subsist on the light, 
on the half 
of metaphor that’s not 
grounded in dust, grit, 
carnal clay? 
Do signs contain and utter, 
for them 
all the reality 
that they need? Resurrection, for them, 
an internal power, but not 
a matter of flesh? 
For the others, 
of whom I am one, 
miracles (ultimate need, bread 
of life) are miracles just because 
people so tuned 
to the humdrum laws: 
gravity, mortality — 
can’t open 
to symbol’s power 
unless convinced of its ground, 
its roots 
in bone and blood. 
We must feel 
the pulse in the wound 
to believe 
that ‘with God 
all things 
are possible,’ 
bread at Emmaus 
that warm hands 
broke and blessed. 

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Living and true God, open our eyes to your mystery, open our hearts to your love. Amen.”

What do you love and why? At the midpoint of his life the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), overcome by exhaustion, loses the true path and finds himself in a terrifying existential wilderness. Thus begins his journey through hell, purgatory and heaven to rediscover his true self. In paradise, the beauty and brightness of Jesus’ closest friend John is like the sun. It causes Dante to temporarily go blind. St. John gently asks that simple question. What do you love and why? My translation of the Italian says, “declare the aim on which your soul is set.”[i]

At Easter we step back from the busyness and distractions of our lives to rediscover and celebrate what is truly good, what we really love. This morning’s sermon has three chapters called worldview, resurrection and transformation.

1. Worldview. I love the German word for it – Weltanschauung, literally world-perception. It reminds us that our individual idiosyncrasies mean that we experience the same world in very different ways. Every week someone says, “you must be freezing riding your bike around here.” And I think to myself, “the air is so clear, the views so spectacular, that hundreds of people from around the world are renting bikes right now to experience what I get to do every day.”

Michael Guillen is the former ABC Science editor and has an interdisciplinary PhD in mathematics, physics and astronomy. For many years as a student he called himself an atheist because people he relied on seemed to believe that science and religion were at odds with each other. Like Dante perhaps, over time the question began to nag him.

He began to put together spreadsheets that compared scientific, atheistic and religious thought. He concluded that on questions like “Does absolute truth exist?” “Are their truths that cannot be proven?” and, “Is the universe designed for life?” a scientific view, with its value of wonder and open inquiry, far more closely matches a religious view than an atheistic one.[ii]

I don’t know if this is the case. I’m not sure that I would agree completely with his reasoning but the important thing that Guillen points out is that people hold vastly different worldviews and that these are crucially important to the quality of our life. What is a worldview? It is the answer to the question, what do you love and why. It is that deep subconscious self that determines how you see the world and how you react to it. Everyone has a worldview.

Guillen notes that you may see yourself as smart, sophisticated, modern. But do not think that this means that your worldview is based on logic. Your worldview, like everyone else’s, depends on what you believe to be true. It is based on faith. Atheists rely on faith, on assumptions that cannot be proved. Fundamentalist Christians rely on a faith that they may not really understand.[iii]

Guillen writes that many people especially young people today believe that opinions and feelings are more important than facts and that for them faith is dangerous. He connects this with today’s unprecedented levels of loneliness, suicide, addiction and despair. Guillen asserts that your worldview should be your most treasured possession because it is central to becoming fulfilled, to a meaningful life. Easter Sunday is an opportunity to tune up our worldview.

2. Resurrection. James Alison is one of my favorite theologians and will be preaching here on June 16. I find his ideas immensely helpful as I try to work on my own worldview. In the Forward to one of his books Archbishop Rowan Williams writes, “The resurrection of Jesus makes it impossible to take for granted that the world is nothing but a system of oppressors and victims, an endless cycle of reactive violence. We are free to understand ourselves and each other in a new way, as living in mutual gift not mutual threat…. [and this] sets in motion relations of forgiveness, equality and care.”[iv] How do we adopt this worldview and begin to be free?

Alison starts with a question that we sometimes hear, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” This means something different to all of us. It might sound like its excluding you, or a kind of boasting. It might fill you with joy. But Alison points out that we do not have a relation to Jesus in the way that we do with ordinary people. He writes that thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans have been murdered. At least one was likely to be a thirty-three year old man who we might call Francisco. Does anyone claim to have a personal relationship with Francisco? What is it that makes the way we talk about Jesus different?

The answer is the resurrection. “[S]tarting from a Sunday morning in the first century a group of people began to make extraordinary claims about someone who was killed the Friday before.”[v] We hear their testimony as they come to understand what happened to them, and to finally comprehend what Jesus taught them during his life. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Salome, Peter, Thomas, Paul, Mark, etc. are not merely making the point that the resurrection happened. They also witness to the fact that it, “profoundly changed them… causing them to rethink the whole of their lives, their relationship with their homeland, their culture, its values…” their understanding of God, and in short their worldview.[vi]

Everyone agrees that no one saw the actual moment of resurrection. Also, it did not happen to people at random. Jesus appeared to particular people in a particular context. That is, these were mostly friends, with great hopes, many of them thought that he was going to overturn the occupying powers. They felt disillusioned. But even more than that they felt guilty about abandoning him. Their relationship with Jesus ended when he was crucified on Good Friday. You cannot have a mutual relationship with someone who is dead. There was no closure, just tragedy, confusion and guilt.

We might be tempted to think of Peter as the good disciple and Judas as the bad one, but both betrayed Jesus – Peter by letting him down when he promised to be steadfast and Judas by actively working with his enemies. The sin that destroyed Judas was not treachery but his inability to believe in the possibility of forgiveness.[vii]

The people who encountered Jesus began to see their lives from a completely new vantage point. Suddenly their worldview had to accommodate absolute grace. Alison calls this gratuity, a shocking gift that comes to us from completely outside the realm of our relationships. Those friends of Jesus received a gift totally independent and beyond what we deserve or can control or manipulate. It is something beyond what we are owed or can earn or pay back. It is forgiveness. In Rowan Williams’ words, we are being freed from our, “prison of self-absorbed, self-referential feelings beyond the reactive and repetitive world sustained by sin.” We no longer have to pass on or return the wounds that we have received.

3. Transformation. Our former Dean of Grace Cathedral Alan Jones was by nature a bit of a sceptic. And yet, the older he grew, the more strongly he came to believe in resurrection. He felt convinced, yet uncomfortable, because he knew it required him to change, to be transformed.[viii]

Alan tells a story about a dandelion growing in a forest clearing and asking nutrients from the soil if they want to become a dandelion. The nutrients shrug their shoulders, if nutrients can do that and ask “what does this involve?” The dandelion says, “I’ll draw you up into my roots and you will become a dandelion.” Since transformation is the name of the game they agree, and are drawn up by the roots and transformed into a lush thriving dandelion.[ix]

Then a rabbit comes hopping along (you probably were wondering when you’d eventually hear about a rabbit in an Easter sermon). The rabbit says to the dandelion, how would you like to become a rabbit? It says “what will that entail?” The rabbit answers, “if you let me eat you, you will become strong and fast.” And sure enough it agreed and the rabbit did.

Later along the forest path a hunter came along and said, “Rabbit, how would you like to be a human?” “What will that involve?” I’ll make you into a stew and you will become part of this great chain of transformation. The rabbit thinks about it for a bit but finally says, okay. The hunter eats the rabbit. Feeling refreshed and strong he goes walking in the forest. The story ends rather abruptly. A voice from heaven says, “Human being. How would you like to become God?” I guess that’s the reason Alan resists resurrection.

Alan’s point is that resurrection is not just about us being forgiven, it is about being changed. There are words about not judging others and forgiveness in the Bible like, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.” (Jn. 8:7), or “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt. 5:9), or, “Forgive others their trespasses” (Mt. 6:14). It is difficult but we can choose to let these words become part of us, part of our worldview.

A Quaker was with his friend at the store when the sales clerk treated him rudely. The Quaker responded with care and love. Afterwards the friend said, “that sales person was a jerk, why were you so nice to him?” The Quaker replied, “why should I allow his behavior to set the agenda and tone of my response to life?”[x]

What do you love and why? Whether you are in darkness dangerously losing the true path or are feeling almost blinded by the light of Christ, your worldview should be your most treasured possession. The resurrection offers us a gift outside the rewards and consequences of all our relationships. It offers us a chance to leave the prison of our self-absorption with its system of oppressors and victims, and to be transformed. We do not need to pass on or return the wounds that we have received.

This week in my memory I have been revisiting the most beautiful Easter Sundays of my life. I found myself imagining childhood in the backyard of my grandparents with my great aunts and uncles. And I have been remembering nine beautiful Easter Sundays here with you and so many others who have passed on. This is what I love – being with you as we give thanks to God.

Let me close with a few lines from Dante’s Paradiso that sum up my feelings. “Amazement overwhelming me, I – like / a child who always hurries back to find / that place he trusts the most – turned to my guide; / and like a mother quick to reassure / her pale and panting son with the same voice / that she has often used to comfort him, / she said, “Do you not know you are in Heaven…”[xi]

[i] “Then do begin; declare the aim on which your soul is set – and be assured of this: your vision, though confounded is not dead.” Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy tr. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) Inferno Canto I (2), Paradiso Cantos XXV-XXVI (222-228)

[ii] Michael Guillen, Believing Is Seeing: A Physicist Explains How Science Shattered His Atheism and Revealed the Necessity of Faith (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale, 2021) 39.

[iii] Ibid., xvii-xviii.

[iv] James Alison, Knowing Jesus (London, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1993), viii.

[v] Ibid., 5.

[vi] Ibid., 7.

[vii] Ibid., 9.

[viii] In a sermon long ago Alan described the human genome as a book with one billion words, that is as long as 800 Bibles. At the rate of one word per second for eight hours a day, it would take a century to read – all in the microscopic nucleus of a cell that fits easily on the head of a pin. It is the four billion year old story of dandelions, rabbits and every form of life that inhabited our planet.

Alan Jones, “The Road to Damascus,” Grace Cathedral.

[ix] Alan Jones, “The Road to Damascus,” Grace Cathedral.

[x] “But as W. H. Auden reminded us once, he said, we’re all by nature actors who cannot become something until they first pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and to the mad who don’t. You might act as if you’re a decent human being. Give it a try. It might be catching do it.” Alan Jones, “The Road to Damascus,” Grace Cathedral.

[xi] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso tr. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) 192.

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mk. 11)!

“[T]here is nothing that requires as gentle a treatment as the removal of an illusion.” We saw this in COVID misinformation and today in political speeches about “white replacement,” the “Deep State” and the “stolen election.” Directly confronting people who hold mistaken beliefs only makes them more defensive and resistant. It only strengthens their self-deception. The eighteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) points out that, “It is not easy to correct a mistake that concerns a person’s entire existence.”[1]

What about the illusions that we hold? Is there hope that we might see the truth? For many years I resisted the impulse behind celebrating Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday in the same worship service. I rebelled against participating in the joyful palm procession, singing Hosanna in the highest on the same day that we walk with Jesus through his abandonment, suffering and death. For me these two moods could not reasonably occupy the same space at the same time.[2] Today I see that the purpose of Palm Sunday is to remove our illusions.

In our Cathedral’s north “Theological Reform Window” we have a delightful image of Kierkegaard sitting in his purple suit reading a book. He was born in 1813 and his biographer suggests that he was perhaps one of the first philosophers to write about “the experience of living in a recognizably modern world of newspapers, trains, [buses] window-shopping, amusement parks, and great stores of knowledge and information.”[3]

One more thing about Søren Kierkegaard is necessary to understanding him. For his whole life Kierkegaard was deeply in love with a woman named Regine. When they were young he used to read the local bishop’s sermons to her. They exchanged passionate love letters. He wrote, “Know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love.”[4]

But Kierkegaard worried that because of his own struggle with what he called “abysmal melancholia” Regine ultimately would not be happy being married to him. When he broke up with her, she pleaded saying that she would tell him she loved him every day of their life together and that he could keep her in a little cupboard.[5] Her prominent father begged him not to break the engagement.

Kierkegaard’s hero was the Greek philosopher Socrates who used irony to force his contemporaries to confront the question of how to be human. Socrates died to teach his fellow citizens how to be more human. In Kierkegaard’s time pretty much everyone was part of the state church and believed that being a Danish citizen was the same thing as being a Christian.

For Kierkegaard this way of existing had nothing to do with the Christianity of the New Testament. Even worse, it positively prevented people from seeking a deeper connection to God. Kierkegaard believed that there were three stages of life: the aesthetic stage was a way of existing just for pleasure and novelty, and the ethical stage involved being stuck in the way humans constantly evaluate ourselves and others.

But Kierkegaard taught that there is something beyond this, beyond just pleasure and judgment about excellence. He called this the religious stage. Human beings also belong a “sphere of infinite depth, which he called ‘inwardness,’ ‘the God-relationship,’ ‘eternity,” “the religious sphere,’ or simply ‘silence.’”[6] If people think that they are already Christians they cease to reach out for God. They are cut off from their deeper self, from the God who makes life worth living.

Kierkegaard put it this way, “If there were no eternal consciousness in a human being [that is no connection to God], if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting force writhing in dark passions that produced everything great and insignificant, if a bottomless, insatiable emptiness lurked beneath everything, what would life be but despair? If there were no sacred bond that tied humankind together, if one generation after another rose like leaves in a forest… if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as the wind through the desert… then how empty and hopeless life would be!”[7]

So how do you convince people into trying to become Christian when they think that they already are? You have to trick them out of their illusions. Kierkegaard did this by making up characters and then writing startling and beautiful books using these fictional voices. Our problem today is a little different than what Kierkegaard faced. These days not everyone calls themselves Christian, but I do think in our time most people in our society, both those who believe and those who do not, think that they know what Christianity is. Perhaps this has been a little true in every age.

So what are we doing on Palm and Passion Sunday? We are removing a powerful illusion of what it means to be a Christian. That illusion is that a military messiah will save us rather than the God who is revealed in the self-emptying of Jesus. In short it is the illusion that having power over other people will resolve our problems, or that our life is chiefly about experiencing pleasure, or enjoying absolute safety. It is the illusion that we have the ability to save ourselves, that we do not need the God who Jesus teaches is like a good father to us.

Palm Sunday readings dispel this illusion in three ways. First, they force us to see what is real. Have any of you ever heard of the Victorian editions of William Shakespeare’s plays?[8] People had such a strong sense of moral optimism in the latter nineteenth century that Shakespeare’s plays offended them. And so they re-wrote the endings of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.

That version of Romeo and Juliet described the two lovers recovering from being poisoned and stabbed. Not only that but they are reconciled. And their families are reconciled. And the local parson comes along to preside at their happily ever after wedding.[9] In contrast our readings today force us to see a violent truth about life in the suffering of Christ.

Second Palm Sunday helps us to become more like Jesus. My friend from seminary Matt Boulton says that ancient people regarded the Bible as something like an empty jacket that is tailored perfectly to fit us.[10] Scripture becomes fulfilled when we give these stories shape, when we put them on ourselves. We are not just passively watching Jesus. We are “putting on Christ,” in the way that the Apostle Paul encourages us. This is how we practice our reliance on God.[11] When we accompany Jesus we share his sorrows. We weep with him at the brokenness of what was meant to be whole.[12]

Finally, on Palm Sunday we love Jesus. Barbara Brown Taylor describes a woman who still high on drugs wandered into the Passion Sunday reading at their Episcopal Church, sitting quietly in the back row and then sobbing, “O my Lord no! Don’t kill my sweet Jesus! You’ve got to stop! You can’t kill my sweet Jesus! O Lord make them stop!” The well-meaning congregants tried to reassure and comfort her. One of the teenagers said, “I tried to tell her it wasn’t real but I realized that for her it was.”[13]

In the reading we are about to hear there is one kind act that will never be forgotten. A woman loves Jesus so much she anoints him with oil imported from India that costs a year’s wages (is that $40,000?). The disciples bitterly criticize her for the expense, but Jesus says she teaches us how to love extravagantly with our whole self. We can love Jesus like her.

As we embark on the holiest season of the year I cannot exactly say what illusions God is trying to dispel in your heart. I also could not say whether Kierkegaard’s conviction that he had to break his engagement with Regine was an illusion. I do know that for 14 years he thought of her every day and never heard her voice until one morning in mid-March of 1855. In the street near his house Regine walked purposely up to him and quietly said, “God bless you – may all go well for you.” Later that day she moved with her husband to his diplomatic post in the Caribbean. Kierkegaard never saw her again. But I think this helped him to become reconciled with what he had done.

In the first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology she writes. “And just this is… the good news we greet with joy. There is One who has looked into the abyss, who has examined the formless horror in its breadth and depth, who encompasses it, its sickness and malice, with the Wisdom that is good, and remains utterly sovereign and utterly undefiled by this sight. The gospel consoles us in our folly and in our fear with the truth that no evil and sin, no deformation and terror, no clawing guilt in the night watches or icy regret, no assaults of our enemies, can be outside the good Wisdom of Almighty God.”[14]

“[T]here is nothing that requires as gentle a treatment as the removal of an illusion.” It is hard to correct a mistake that concerns one’s entire existence. But there is more to life than just pleasure and judgment. We are more than the mistakes we have made. We belong to a sphere of infinite depth and stillness. Let us walk with Jesus. We have this lifetime to contemplate God’s love for us.

Let us pray: “Father in heaven! That which we in the company of other people, especially in the throng of humanity, have such difficulty learning, and which, if we have learned it elsewhere, is so easily forgotten in the company of other people – what it is to be a human being and what, from a godly standpoint, is the requirement for being a human being – would that we might learn it, or, if it has been forgotten, that we might learn it anew… would that we might learn it, if not all at once, then learn at least something of it, little by little – would that on this occasion we might… learn silence, obedience, joy!”[15]

Søren Kierkegaard’s Prayer

[1] “Either/Or was the first in a series of ‘aesthetic’ works, written for the kind of reader who ‘thinks he is a Christian and yet is living in purely aesthetic categories.’ This is the widespread ‘illusion’ of Christendom: in a culture so steeped in Christianity as nineteenth-century Denmark, it is possible to do all the things expected of a Christian and yet never embark on the task of faith that takes a lifetime – perhaps longer than a lifetime – to accomplish.

            Before Kierkegaard began his authorship, he had learned from Socrates that ‘there is nothing that requires as gentle a treatment as the removal of an illusion’ – for a direct confrontation only makes people more defensive and resistant, and strengthens their self-deceptions. It is not easy to correct a mistake that concerns a person’s entire existence. As a Socratic missionary, he has tried to teach his readers ‘not to comprehend Christianity, but to comprehend that they cannot comprehend it’. And so he entered into their illusion in order to draw them out of it: ‘One does not begin directly with what one wishes to communicate, but begins by taking the other’s delusion at face value.

Thus one does not begin in this way: It is Christianity that I am pro-claiming, and you are living in purely aesthetic categories. No, one begins in this way: Let us talk about the aesthetic.”

Clare Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (NY: Penguin Books, 2019) 132.

Quoting Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, 43.

[2] Peter J. Gomes, “Beyond Tragedy,” Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998) 68ff.

[3] Clare Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (NY: Penguin Books, 2019) xv.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Ibid., xviii.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Writings, VI, Volume 6: Fear and Trembling / Repetition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) 12.

[8] Peter J. Gomes, “Beyond Tragedy,” Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998) 70.

[9] In case we are tempted to sympathize with Pontius Pilate or blame the crowds, we have other non-biblical descriptions of what he was like. The historian Josephus writes about how he ordered Romans to disguise themselves as Jews carrying clubs under their garments and then murdering people in the crowds.

“Two contemporary Jewish authors portray Pilate with characteristics that flatly contradict the equivalent ones in the Gospels. One is his method of dispensing justice, the other is his method of handling crowds.

The philosopher Philo’s On the Embassy to Gaius describes Pilate as “a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate.” It speaks of “his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Pilate was “exceedingly angry, and . . . at all times a man of most ferocious passions.” Pilate is Philo’s posterboy for a bad governor.

The historian Josephus records, in both The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, that an unarmed crowd came before Pilate’s tribunal at coastal Caesarea to demand that he remove from Jerusalem the pagan images on his military standards. He surrounded the crowd with soldiers “three deep,” and people were saved from slaughter only by a willingness for martyrdom. But the next time they tried the same nonviolent resistance, Pilate infiltrated them with soldiers dressed “in Jewish garments, under which they carried clubs,” and “many of them actually were slain on the spot, while some withdrew disabled by blows.”

Finally, according to Jewish Antiquities, the Syrian governor, Vitellius, removed Pilate from office and sent him back to defend himself before the emperor Tiberius in Rome. You can probably guess for what offense. His soldiers attacked a Samaritan crowd on Mount Garizim. The high priest Caiaphas, by the way, was removed from office at the same time, and that ended his ten-year collaboration with Pilate, a collaboration ultimately judged unwise even by Roman imperial interests.”

John Dominic Crossan, “Crowd Control: A Critique of The Passion of the Christ,” The Christian Century, 23 March 2004.

[10] Matthew Boulton, “Palms and Passion, SALT’s Commentary for Palm/Passion Sunday,” SALT 18 March 2024.

[11] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Worship” in The Preaching Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993) 63ff.

[12] Peter J. Gomes, “Beyond Tragedy,” Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998).

[13] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Worship” in The Preaching Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993) 63ff.

[14] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015) 357.

[15] “Father in heaven! That which we in the company of other people, especially in the throng of humanity, have such difficulty learning, and which, if we have learned it elsewhere, is so easily forgotten in the company of other people – what it is to be a human being and what, from a godly standpoint, is the requirement for being a human being – would that we might learn it, or, if it has been forgotten, that we might learn it anew from the lily and the bird; would that we might learn it, if not all at once, then learn at least something of it, little by little – would that on this occasion we might from the lily and the bird learn silence, obedience, joy!”

Søren Kierkegaard, “The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air,” Three Godly Discourses tr. Bruce H. Kirmmse cited in Clare Carlisle, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (NY: Penguin Books, 2019) 263.

Dear Friends,

Many of us have fond memories of the Rev. Mark Stanger, who served with such passion and thoughtfulness at Grace Cathedral over two decades. Some of us have been blessed to join one of his pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Over the years, as Mark traveled to Israel, he formed special relationships with many people, including several families in Gaza.

This week Mark reached out to ask us to help one of these families to get out of Gaza in order to be resettled near relatives they have in Europe. Those of us who are close to Mark have heard him speak fondly of his friends Marwan Abdul Hamed and Razan M. Qudiah and their two very young daughters.

Razan owned a small pharmacy and dermatological clinic while Marwan did software and app development from their home office. Nearly everything they own has been destroyed through the war, and they need to act quickly to save their family.

I will be making a donation on our behalf from the Dean’s Discretionary fund, but I would like to invite you to give also.

Please be sure to join us this Sunday at the 11 am service as we celebrate the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Canon Greg Kimura. Greg has been at Grace Cathedral as Vice Dean for nearly two years and will be leaving to serve as Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena. We are very proud of Greg’s new appointment and looking forward to learning more about his ministry there.

Finally, in Bible Study this week, we talked a little about our journey through Lent and the way that we experience God’s presence especially as we are worshiping together during Holy Week. Wherever you are on this pilgrimage, I am praying for you as you travel. Every day I give thanks for the ministry we all do together through God’s grace.


Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying and see – we are alive; as punished and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor. 5).”

Why do I love Ash Wednesday so much? It is because of you. You are my Valentine. Although what happens here makes no sense to the people around us in San Francisco you came out on a cold, rainy night to be reminded that our life is passing away. You are here because of your faith.

So many different backgrounds and experiences shaped us, but we share in common a sense that Jesus is inviting us into a life-saving mystery. Tonight let me share a theological idea, a poem and a parable.

1. How well do the people in your life understand you? How does our yearning to be understood change the way that we act? Jesus addresses this question today.

Greek has different words for seeing.1 When we hear repeatedly, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” the word is blepo. It refers to seeing physically, with one’s eyes. But at the very beginning of the passage Jesus uses a different word to warn us to, “beware of practicing your piety/your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.”2 In this case the Greek word is theathēnai. It means seeing with understanding. It is related to our word for theory or to theorize, but also to that place where we see into various characters, the theater.

The preacher Sam Wells compares the religion of Israel to a great theater. Moses goes up to the peak of Mt. Sinai and emerges through the curtain of clouds carrying the law. King Solomon builds a great temple containing the holy of holies where, concealed by a curtain, the priest encounters God. Jesus takes this theater for granted. It is the theater of keeping the commandments, the theater of “thou shall not.”3

But there is more to faith than merely keeping the commandments and avoiding wrong doing. There is another theater beyond it. This is the theater of holy living. It is the world of “thou shall.” It is what we actually do, how we live as people of faith.

There is a danger in this. In Jesus’ time and now religion can become a theater of performance or appearance. For instance, it can be a way of being recognized for good deeds, such as our generosity in giving. Jesus talks about hypocrites sounding a trumpet before giving to the poor. He warns about praying publicly so that others admire us and seeking praise for make our fasting obvious.

We have a sense for the way that something good we put on social media becomes an effort to look good on social media. Jesus teaches that when religious life becomes a way that we impress others, something very important is lost. And so Jesus redefines the theater. Instead of being actors in front of an audience that is the world, he asks us to be disciples with God as our true audience. And so the locked room of prayer becomes our theater, the place we encounter God.

It is natural to want to be noticed, respected, admired. It makes sense to try to be the center of people’s attention. And that is one of our options. We choose our audience. It can be the crowd. Or it can be God. If it is God we receive a different kind of gift. It is the gift of a secret, a kind of intimacy with God that nothing can break.

The theater of the crowd and the theater of the locked room involve the suspension of disbelief. They have rules like other games. We call the players actors. Strangely enough the Greek word for actor is the same word that Jesus uses in this story. It is hypocrite. It means to pretend to be one thing when we are really another.

In this case there is no way around pretending. Either you pretend to give alms, pray, and fast in order to be seen by the theater of the crowd. Or you in a sense pretend not to give alms, pray and fast, because God is your real audience. This is about faith. In a sense Jesus asks us to live as if we were already part of the next world, as if we had already entered the realm of perfect love.

And to do this we have to be a kind of hypocrite. We have to seem as if we fully embrace this world when deep in our hearts we believe in the next. The follower of Jesus who can give without letting one’s right hand know what the left is doing, will have a unique freedom from material things. A Christian who can pray in secret, will grow closer to God’s way of seeing the world and will be free of the passing illusions of our time. And the person of faith who secretly fasts will soon learn a whole new spiritual landscape and realize that we are more than just our bodies.

2. The Christian farmer-poet Wendell Berry writes about this freedom from the world’s opinions in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Let me share an excerpt from it.4

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise, / vacation with pay. Want more /of everything ready-made. Be afraid / to know your neighbors and to die. /And you will have a window in your head. / Not even your future will be a mystery / any more. Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know. /”

“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. /Love the world. Work for nothing. /Take all that you have and be poor. / Love someone who does not deserve it… / Ask the questions that have no answers.”

“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. / Say that your main crop is the forest / that you did not plant, / that you will not live to harvest. / … and hear the faint chattering / of the songs that are to come. / Expect the end of the world. Laugh. / Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts….”

“As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, /some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.”

3. Finally, there is an old Jewish parable that seems so perfect for Ash Wednesday. When God makes each of us we are given a garment to use in this world. In one pocket is ash to remind us that we come from the earth and will eventually return to it. In the other pocket is a letter from God. Addressed to each of us individually it says, “even if you were the only soul on the earth. I would have created everything that exists just for you.”5

Thank you for losing your mind a little with me tonight. Thank you for “seeing with understanding,” for choosing God in the secret theater of the locked room over the crowd. Thank you for living as if you are already part of the next world. Thank you for practicing resurrection every day.

1 Eido is to look with understanding, like when someone tells us a story and we say, “I see.” Blepo is to look with the eyes in a more physical kind of way. Optomai means to appear. Oraō means to see to it or look out for. It is the same word for theaomai.

2 Prose÷cete [de«] th\n dikaiosu/nhn uJmw◊n mh\ poiei√n e¶mprosqen tw◊n aÓnqrw¿pwn pro\ß to\ qeaqhvnai aujtoi√ß: ei˙ de« mh/ ge, misqo\n oujk e¶cete para» twˆ◊ patri« uJmw◊n twˆ◊ e˙n toi√ß oujranoi√ß. Matthew 6:1.

3 The entire first section of this sermon depends on: Sam Wells, “Holiness: Simplicity: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21,” The Christian Century, 23 February 2000.

4 “Love the quick profit, the annual raise, / vacation with pay. Want more /of everything ready-made. Be afraid / to know your neighbors and to die. /And you will have a window in your head. / Not even your future will be a mystery / any more. Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know. /”

“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. /Love the world. Work for nothing. /Take all that you have and be poor. / Love someone who does not deserve it. / Denounce the government and embrace / the flag. Hope to live in that free / republic for which it stands. / Give your approval to all you cannot / understand. Praise ignorance, for what man / has not encountered he has not destroyed. /Ask the questions that have no answers.”

“Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. / Say that your main crop is the forest / that you did not plant, / that you will not live to harvest. / Say that the leaves are harvested / when they have rotted into the mold. / Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. / Put your faith in the two inches of humus / that will build under the trees / every thousand years. /”

“Listen to carrion—put your ear close, / and hear the faint chattering / of the songs that are to come. / Expect the end of the world. Laugh. / Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful / though you have considered all the facts. /”

“So long as women do not go cheap / for power, please women more than men. / Ask yourself: Will this satisfy / a woman satisfied to bear a child? / Will this disturb the sleep / of a woman near to giving birth? / Go with your love to the fields. / Lie easy in the shade. / Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance / to what is nighest your thoughts. /”

“As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it. Leave it as a sign / to mark the false trail, the way / you didn’t go. Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, /some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.” Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” Collected Poems 1957-1982 (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1984) 151-2.

5 Melia Young told me this parable she learned in Mexico on Ash Wednesday Valentine’s Day.

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Come Holy Spirit. Heal and deepen and strengthen our hearts. Amen.”

This week my friend Taylor asked a difficult question. He’s about thirty and works in technology. Religion simply does not make sense for most people around him. Taylor has undertaken a tremendous challenge. He is reading 177 great books from Socrates to Heidegger. He said, “My faith is so new and fragile. It has completely transformed my life but I worry that something I read or learn might undo it.”1

Today we will consider this question in light of two of the most powerful religious experiences in recorded history. Some of you know that in one month I lost two of the most important spiritual friends and teachers of my life: my college chaplain Peter Haynes and our former dean Alan Jones. During one of the busiest weeks of December I went back to Orange County for Peter’s funeral. Our old church, St. Michael and All Angel’s in Corona del Mar, had hardly changed.

Since I arrived a few hours early I went walking around the U.C. Irvine campus. Winter holidays meant that I probably saw only three people. On that glorious day the sycamore trees were shining. Suddenly I found myself outside my old office and it all came rushing back to me.

My wife Heidi and I were barely acquainted when she met me at that reception desk for the first time. When she hugged me I had this overwhelming feeling that we were connected. Words really fail me here but it seemed like a part of her spirit came into my heart at that moment. I felt like someone who had been in the dark coming suddenly into bright light. No one else noticed. Heidi did not at all feel the same way. But thirty years later that place brought the moment back as if it had only happened an hour ago.

My point is that moments of transcendence come and go. Not even everyone who is present shares the same feeling about what is happening or even notices that something special has occurred. We want to hold onto it but life always sweeps us forward.2

1. Text. In the Second Book of Kings the prophet Elijah puts his mantle, his cloak on his student Elisha. Later, “the Lord [is] about to take Elijah up to heaven” (2 Kings 2). As he

walks along with Elisha, Elijah keeps repeating, “Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to…” and refers to each of several places (Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan). Elisha says, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” Elisha goes to the end.

As God takes Elijah into heaven, Elisha cries out “Father, Father… when he [can] no longer see him, he [grasps] his own clothes and [tears] them to pieces.” Elisha loved his teacher so deeply. Maybe he also worried about becoming the teacher himself, about being alone without his mentor. Last week Cricket gave me Alan’s clothes, his cloaks. I have been wearing them and I have been wondering the same thing myself. We are always being challenged to grow in spiritual maturity even when we resist.

The second text comes from the exact midpoint of Mark’s Gospel. The first eight chapters are the ascent as Jesus offers healing and liberation to everyone he encounters. The last half follow him as his enemies gather strength and ultimately kill him. Just before this fulcrum however Jesus introduces the most difficult teaching of all. The greatest one does not amass earthly power or earn a kind of exemption from suffering. The Holy One and we who follow go into the darkness in order to serve.

In the dreamlike story of the transfiguration Jesus wears brilliantly shining clothes as he speaks to two prophets (who are also murderers). Some people see a connection to Jesus’ baptism and also to his death on a cross next to two criminals. For me what matters most is the mystical revelation that Jesus is God’s child. Seeing ourselves and other people as children of God is the most important spiritual realization of all.

2. Doctrine. For me, this is the central truth of faith. Let me talk about two other ideas related to this. This first part is a little hard to understand. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes about what it means to experience the resurrected Jesus. He writes, “The apostles witnessed… Jesus… in a real encounter, themselves on one side, alive but moving forward to death, and He on the other, alive from the dead, alive no more to die, alive eternally even now in time… He made known to them this side of His (and their) death wholly in light of the other side, and therefore that He made known to them the other side, His (and their) life beyond, wholly in terms of this side.”3

The purpose of these stories is for us to see the reality of our life from the perspective of eternity and to see our home in eternity from the perspective of this life. This is another way of talking about being children of God. When we realize that we are children of God, that we are intimately connected to eternity, we experience what Alan Jones used to describe as “living from the heart.”

Alan used to quote Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), a great Muslim mystic, who wrote, “the greatest sin is what brings about the death of the heart. It dies only by not knowing God. For the heart is the house that God has chosen for himself, but such a person has taken over the house, coming between it and its owner.” Alan goes on saying when we are separate from our heart we wrong ourselves. “[S]o many of us are experts at self-sabotage because we are not in touch with the heart.”4

3. Application. So how do we realize ourselves and others as children of God? How do we grow in consciousness of eternity? How do we live from the heart? Let me close with two examples. In his memoir Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) writes about two brothers who grew up in South Africa. They were six years apart in age. The older one was handsome, athletic, reliable, intelligent and a kind of natural leader. The younger one was also very capable but suffered from a terribly bent spine. He also had an incredible singing voice.5

Eventually the younger brother came to the boarding school where the older one was an admired leader. There were some embarrassing moments. One time a group of boys ganged up against the younger brother. Jeering at him they ripped off his shirt to expose his back. The older brother could hear this happening and did not go to rescue his younger brother. He could have intervened but he did nothing. And the younger brother was never the same again. He went back home to the farm and lived as a kind of recluse. And sadly, he never, never sang again.

Later the older brother was stationed in Palestine during World War II. Looking up at the night sky he woke up to what he had done. He knew he had to acknowledge what had happened and ask for forgiveness. He made the difficult wartime journey home. The two brothers talked long into the night with the older brother apologizing. They cried and embraced and the breach between them was healed.

After they both had gone to bed, deep in the night, the older brother was awakened by the sound of his brother singing – beautifully. That is what forgiving does. It enables us to find a voice for singing. Grace Cathedral is a place where we sing together. It is a place where we try to live from the heart.

From the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, let me share a conversation between an older toy and a younger one. “What is REAL?” asked Rabbit when they were lying side by side…, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you…””

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said Skin Horse… he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you become Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”6

If one could say what God is, that would not be God. God is not an idea or an argument, God is revealed to us in moments of transcendence. God is the meaning, the holiness that transfigures us when we are in touch with our hearts and the world.

Yesterday Taylor had more to say about how a Christian should respond to atheists. He writes, “I used to be so interested in “apologetics” – in finding the perfect, irrefutable response to any line of attack on my faith… but I think I’m coming to realize that the correct response to a staunch atheist is to show through my life what God has done for me, and to love them and see God even in their critique itself.”7

Encountering God is like falling in love with someone you do not yet know. It is being reconciled to your long lost brother. It is living from the heart and becoming real forever. May the fiery chariots of heaven, and the pure brightness of the prophets always guide you closer to our true home in God. Come Holy Spirit. Heal and deepen and strengthen our hearts. Amen.

1 He reads about atheists who argue that our religious impulses amount to no more than the misfiring of neurons in our brains. Conversation on Thursday 8 November 2024.

2 Today’s sermon follows the same structure that the old puritans used. We will start with the texts, then a doctrine that arises from them and then applications to consider what they might mean.

3 Karl Barth, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation,” Church Dogmatics Volume IV, tr. G.W. Bromiley (New York: T&T Clark, 2004) 352-3.

4 “And we are called to be a community of the heart first by affirming that God, Christ, the word is present in every human heart. And second, that God’s presence in every human heart is confirmed and strengthened and celebrated in our two great sacraments of baptism. And the Eucharist and the religion of the heart is simple and universal. And without heart we are nothing. A great Muslim mystic Ibi said, the greatest sin is what brings about the death of the heart. It dies only by not knowing God. For the heart is the house that God has chosen for himself, but such a person has taken over the house, coming between it and its owner.”
“A person like that is one who most wrongs himself. A person like that is the one who most wrongs himself. And it’s true that so many of us are experts at self-sabotage because we’re not in touch with the heart. And as a community of the heart, we know we have to learn to forgive each other and forgive ourselves. Just listen to the readings. For today, communities like ours tend to miss the point and betray their vision. And yet, and yet God still loves us and comes looking for us, there’s always room.” Alan Jones, “Living from the Heart,” Grace Cathedral Sermon transcript, September 2004.

5 “I read last week a memoir of Laurens van der Post who tells a story from South Africa. It’s a story about two brothers. The elder was handsome and athletic and bright and capable and out there and a natural leader. The younger by some six years was not very capable and was also deformed. He was a hunchback, said Laurens van der Post. But he did have a magnificent singing voice. When the younger brother, when the younger brother joined his elder at boarding school where the older brother was an admired leader, there were some embarrassing moments, particularly there was a cruel incident when a group of boys ganged up on the younger brother jeered at him, tore off his shirt to reveal his back and his brother, the older brother could hear this happening and he didn’t go and rescue his younger brother, he did nothing. He could have intervened and acknowledge his brother, but he decided to stay where he was.
He betrayed his brother and the younger brother was never the same again. He went home to the farm and became reclusive. And the sad thing is that he never, never sang again. Later, the older brother as a soldier in World War II was stationed in Palestine one night looking at the the night sky. He woke up to the fact of what he’d done. He knew he would never have peace in his heart until he went home and asked his brothers forgiveness. And amazing as it seems, he was able to make the incredibly difficult wartime journey from Palestine to South Africa. And he met his brother. The brothers talked long into the night, the elder brother confessing his guilt and remorse, they both cried, embraced, and the breach between them was healed. Later when they had both gone to bed, the older brother was woken up by the sound of singing.
It was his brother singing beautifully and in full voice. I think that’s what forgiving does. It enables others to find a voice for singing. And we are a community where every voice needs to be heard and sing out. Oh my God, it’s wonderful where a community active for justice because a community of the heart has to be. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist tells of a young man from Birmingham, Alabama speaking in 1965. He said, I don’t know why I put myself on the line. I don’t know why I said no to segregation. I’m just another white southerner. And I wasn’t brought up to love integration, but I was brought up to love Jesus Christ. And when I saw the police of this city use dogs on people, I asked myself what Jesus Christ would’ve thought and what he would’ve done. And that’s all I know about how I came to be here on the firing line.” Ibid.

6 Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit, Illustrated by Monique Felix (Mankato, MN: Creative Editions, 1994) 10-11.

7 From Taylor: “I will leave you with a section of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which I finished today. I thought of you and that you might agree with his words as much as I did.”

“I was only then
Contented when with bliss ineffable
I felt the sentiment of being, spread
O’er all that moves, and all that seemeth still;
O’er all that, lost beyond the reach of thought
And human knowledge, to the human eye
Invisible, yet liveth to the heart;
O’er all that leaps, and runs, and shouts, and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air; o’er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself
And mighty depth of waters. Wonder not
If such my transports were, for in all things
I saw one life, and felt that it was joy;
One song they sang, and it was audible-
Most audible then when the fleshly ear,
O’ercome by grosser prelude of that strain,
Forgot its functions and slept undisturbed.

If this be error, and another faith
Find easier access to the pious mind,
Yet were I grossly destitute of all
Those human sentiments which make this earth
So dear, if I should fail with grateful voice
To speak of you, ye mountains and ye lakes
And sounding cataracts, ye mists and winds
That dwell among the hills where I was born.
If in my youth I have been pure in heart,
If, mingling with the world, I am content
With my own modest pleasures, and have lived
With God and nature communing, removed
From little enmities and low desires,
The gift is yours – if in these times of fear,
This melancholy waste of hopes o’erthrown,
If, mid indifference and apathy
And wicked exultation, when good men
On every side fall off, we know not how,
To selfishness (disguised in gentle names
Of peace and quiet and domestic love,
Yet mingled, not unwillingly, with sneers
On visionary minds), if in this time
Of dereliction and dismay I yet
Despair not of our nature, but retain
A more than Roman confidence, a faith
That fails not, in all sorrow my support,
The blessing of my life, the gift is yours,
Ye mountains, thine o nature! Thou hast fed
My lofty speculations, and in thee
For this uneasy heart of ours I find
A never-failing principle of joy
And purest passion.”