Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

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“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. https://www.abarim-publications.com/DictionaryG/e/e-i-d-om.html https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/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. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/holiness-simplicity?code=wi5dWLGrq0cgW0WFzyHA&utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=4f1520476d-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_SCP_2024-02-08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_-31c915c0b7-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D

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.

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“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.”

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“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40).

For a moment imagine what it feels like to be Jesus. You go to visit your friends’ hometown and quietly heal their mother-in-law. Twenty minutes later, before you can finish eating dinner, the entire town has crowded around the door. You immediately get to work healing people. They look into your eyes with such gratitude as you bring peace to their tortured inner lives. They love you. You work late into the night. You can only get away to be by yourself at 3:00 a.m.

Over time because there are always more people to heal, you try to sleep less every night, maybe even spend less time eating or talking with friends. This gift of healing might begin to feel like a curse. Every moment could seem like it had been stolen from a sick person whose suffering is so much greater than the effort it takes you to make them whole. You think traffic is irritating now, imagine how it would be if you knew that by driving on the shoulder to the Civic Center exit you could save twenty people’s lives. It would be far easier to feel impatient with the people who you are supposed to love.[1]

I believe in demons. Even the greatest, holiest gift imaginable would raise up demons for me because I am not completely centered in God.

Although we believe in Jesus, the language of demon possession is even more foreign to most of us than the ancient Greek of the New Testament. No one in our ordinary life talks about demons. Usually we use the language of science for experiences that we used to call demonic. But sometimes we need this vocabulary.

For three years in college I worked as a Residence Advisor, an R.A. in the only all-male residence hall in the University of California system. We had two hundred young men who got into enough trouble for a year’s worth of sermon stories. I remember one freshman from Orange County named Todd. His parents gave him a red convertible sports car as a high school graduation gift. In October he drove it up to a Grateful Dead concert in Oregon.

Todd had never used drugs before, but that afternoon he tried LSD. The rational, reasonable, recognizable self that he had always been disappeared. This previously clean-cut, conservative-looking eighteen year old slipped into insanity. He abandoned his car and hitchhiked home, no doubt scaring everyone who stopped to help him.

When he returned to Bowles Hall, the demons completely controlled him. His roommates called me to help and I found him squatting on the top of a five-foot high chest of drawers next to an open sixth floor window. “I am the devil,” he yelled. “I must destroy the light!” He reached into a Costco-sized bucket of mayonnaise with his bare hand and ate it. He hissed, “I’m Jesus and I must destroy the darkness!” And proceeded to drink directly out of a half-liter coke bottle.

Somehow I managed to get him away from the open window and ultimately we had him committed to the psychiatric floor of a nearby hospital. I have two reasons for telling you about this. The first is that I am grateful we have trained scientific professionals who have experience with a broad range of psychological problems. They have helped me in countless ways.

I don’t think that Christians can dispense with the language of demon possession. There is something mysterious, unknown and unexplainable at the heart of our inner life. We shouldn’t dismiss demons as merely a primitive pre-scientific understanding of mental illness. Let’s talk about two pictures of reality, two worldviews.

1. The first is the modern scientific picture that comes naturally to all of us. Like the demonic picture, it teaches about unseen realities that influence our health. It refers to bacteria, brain chemistry, the glandular system and genetics to explain disease. Like Jesus it teaches that our suffering is not the result of sin. But a scientific view also does not have much room for grace, for unexpected help from God.

In the past the scientific worldview has not carefully studied the effect of our spiritual state on our physical well-being. If viruses or misfiring neurons cause bad health, it doesn’t make much sense to examine whether a person has given themselves over to hopelessness or despair. In the past the scientific picture often made a strong distinction between the physical world and the mental one. As a result it had a hard time understanding the health effect of our  inner life.

The modern picture also implies an idea of what it means to be normal. It presumes that illness only afflicts a small number of us at any time. The rest of us are normal. According to this understanding there is no such thing as sin which afflicts everyone. There is only the dividing line between the healthy majority and those whom the doctors are trying to fix. This picture also has a pretty hard time with evil. Modern people understand the way that out of self-interest people cause others harm. But real evil makes no sense in this system at all.

Remember when I preached about that beautiful John Lennon song “Imagine?” “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you can. No hell below us. Above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for the day…” Or have you ever been in an argument with someone who asserts that they can’t believe in religion because it causes so many wars? These sum up this picture of life that says the normal state is one of health and peace. This image sets us up to be surprised by politics, conflict and war. One thing I appreciate about the demonic picture is that it reminds us that we cannot even be at peace with ourselves.

2. As I said earlier, in medical emergencies, for eating disorders, addictions, and mental illness I depend heavily on experts who rely on scientific methods. At the same time however, I’ve already alluded to some problems with looking at the world exclusively in this way. Someone should write a book called “I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay” about the universality of sin.

This is one advantage of the demonic picture. In it there is no such thing as a normal person. Demons afflict all people but at varying levels of intensity at different times. This view also holds that often we cannot understand why we experience healing. It helps us to accept the feeling of freedom or relief coming from beyond us, from God.[2]

The first part of the sermon opened the possibility that you too might begin to believe in the demonic. Not so much in the extreme situations when you should be consulting a psychiatrist but in more ordinary moments as you make sense of the world.

This second part will help you to recognize demons. For me the demonic distorts or destroys the image of God in you or another person. These voices tell us to perceive ourselves or others as something less than God’s children.

In the fourth century Constantine (272-337) became the Roman emperor and after the Edict of Milan (313) Christianity was no longer illegal. Faith in Jesus went from being an outlaw religion to being useful for moving up the social ladder. Some Christians deplored this. They moved out into the Egyptian desert and started Christian monasticism as they tried to perfect themselves in holiness. People of the time called them ascetics or spiritual athletes and they dedicated themselves to fighting demons.

These desert fathers and mothers believed that demons act through our thoughts to arouse emotions that draw us away from God. Solitude helps us to identify these demons; prayer, self-observation and knowledge helps us to prevail against them.

Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) writes about this battle. “The demon of acedia (boredom, indifference) – also called the noonday demon – is one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eight hour, First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all and that the day is fifty hours long… (etc.). Then too he inspires in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself…”[3]

In the movie The Greatest Game Ever Played ghostly figures from the golfers’ troubled childhoods stand on the other side of the putting green. Our demons are like that. They say, “You can’t do this,” or “You deserve what is happening to you,” or “That teacher was right – you’ll never amount to much,” or “There’s no point in trying anything different,” or “She should be the one who apologizes to you!” To draw us away from God a demon could say something as simple as “I’m right.” We fight these demons in the way that Jesus does, by relying on prayer and by silencing these voices through acts of love.

This brings us to an answer for our opening problem. If Jesus has such power to heal why would he do anything else? When the disciples find him praying in a deserted place he tells them, I must move on to proclaim my message in neighboring towns. His work of healing and casting out demons seem secondary to teaching people that they are God’s children, that they can do this work themselves. The ministry of healing and casting out demons that one man inspired twenty centuries ago is what over 2.3 billion Christians do today.

The author Chaim Potok’s mother wanted him to be a surgeon. She reasoned with him that he could be well paid and save lives too. He replied, “I don’t want to keep people from dying. I want to show them how to live.” [4] In this time when demons of fear and uncertainty possess our country, and even sometimes our church, we as Christians must show people another way. This means talking about the God of love to people who see nothing more than a world with neither sin nor salvation.

Alan Jones used to refer to what he called “the believer’s secret.” He calls this the lifelong process of exchanging, “our living death for God’s dying life.” It is “per crucem ad lucem and per angusta ad augusta: through the cross to the light and through the narrows to the heights.” “To know that one is a sinner, and at the same time, to know one is standing in the grace and love of God,” this leads to joy, “the joy that is the mark of the believer.”[5]

At Alan Jones’ funeral a week and a half ago we had a family reunion of a tribe of people who believe in a more generous picture of what it means to follow Jesus. We are this family and the world needs us. We have a consciousness of sin and a kind of joy, an appreciation for beauty, a confidence in God’s love that means that we do not need to always set everybody else straight. Pray for each of us as we use these gifts to cast out demons and bring healing to our world.


[1] 5 Epiphany (2-8-09) B. P5.

[2] In Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Witches the hero’s kindly grandmother tells him, “you won’t last long in this world if you don’t know how to spot a witch when you see one.”

Roald Dahl, The Witches (NY: Penguin, 1983), 14.

[3] “The demon of acedia (boredom, indifference) – also called the noonday demon – is one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour, First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps one of the brothers appears from his cell. Then too he inspires in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period that offends him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to further contribute to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work, and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis for pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle, and… leaves no stone unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight.”

Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos 12, from Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA:Blackwell Press, 2005), 87.

[4] Peter Haynes, “This is What I Came to Do” http://rockhay.tripod.com/sermons/2000/00-02-06.html

[5] “St. Simeon, the New Theologian, sees the true baptism of the Spirit as the baptism of tears — the great photismos — the illumination by which a person becomes all light. Tears are part of the process by which the believer is made anew in Jesus Christ through the gift of the Spirit. Tears are an antidote to the passions (by which is meant that shifting, unfree, unintegrated part of ourselves). And in this tradition, sadness is considered to be one of the enslaving passions. To know that one is a sinner and, at the same time, to know that one is standing in the grace and love of God is what the gift of tears is all about.

True penthos, therefore, guards against despair and discouragement. St. John Chrysostom writes in one of his letters: “Even in the case of our own faults, for which we will be held account-able, it is not necessary or prudent—it is even very harmful-to afflict ourselves excessively … Let no sinner despair, let no man trust in his virtue…” (p. 163). It is not a matter of repressing our emotions and feelings so much as one of winning them back. We ache for their restoration, not their destruction.

This is at the heart of what we might call “the believer’s secret,” which is the exchange of our living death for God’s dying life. This is one of the many ways in which the apparent contradiction of the Christian life is expressed. There is per crucem ad lucem and per angusta ad augusta: through the cross to the light and through the narrows to the heights. The end of it all is joy.

It was precisely for this that we were created. St. Irenaeus said that God made us in “order that he might have someone in whom to place his great gifts.”? Joy, always joy, is the mark of the believer. As St. Francis de Sales said, “A sad saint is a sorry saint.””

Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985) 104.

Dear Friends,

It was such a pleasure to see so many people at the Memorial Service we had for Alan Jones on Wednesday. People traveled thousands of miles to be here and the cathedral was full of his friends. It was the most powerful experience I remember ever having here, a true family reunion that included friends I had not visited with in decades. It made me feel so grateful for each of us and for this great cathedral that brings us together and to God whose spirit we see here.

This Sunday, Bishop Marc Andrus will be with us for his official visitation and our Annual Meeting (which starts at 9:30 am and will be in the Nave). This will be a chance for us to reflect on the ministry we do together as a congregation and to learn more about what the future might hold for us. The annual meeting will be in person but also broadcast online.

On Sunday afternoon, our new trustees will begin the first of two orientation sessions. They will be joined by our newest staff member, Louise Gregory. Louise will be doing the work that Katherine Thompson did as our Canon for Development.

Louise comes to us from her role as Executive Director of Development at the University Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was responsible for raising $150 million in 6 years for the University’s Light the Way campaign, which included $60 million for the renovation of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library into a new Center for Connected Learning.

Louise has a 30-year track record of development success in higher education and cultural organizations, and during her career, she has worked on five capital campaigns, at the Oakland Museum, California Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium, the Berkeley Art Museum, and Pacific Film Archive, and at the University Library. She has extensive experience partnering with boards of trustees and staff colleagues to raise funds and visibility for the organizations she serves.

A native of Georgia, Louise has a B.A. in French and English from Hollins University and an M.A. in Museum Studies from San Francisco State University, and she lives in San Francisco with her husband, Joe Scanga. She has attended many events at Grace Cathedral over the years and looks forward to meeting everyone soon.

Louise’s official biography does not directly mention it, but she is a very lively person and will bring great skills and energy to our life together.

May God bless and keep you today and always!

Love,
Malcolm

The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral

Alan William Jones (March 5, 1940 – January 14, 2024)

“Oh my God, you are here. Oh my God, I am here. Oh my God, we are here. Amen.”[1]

The next time you see a picture of destruction in Gaza think of Alan Jones. Alan’s first memories include the time when all the windows on his street were blown out by bombs during World War II. The war terrified Alan’s brother John who was nine years older, but Alan mostly remembers one time after the warning sirens when his mother read Rupert Bear to him under a table.

My mother and Alan grew up in England as exact contemporaries – they may have walked by each other in London at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Mom went through life in horror that the Germans had bombed children. Alan on the other hand recalled that during wartime people were cheerful, kinder and more supportive of each other.[1]

In a sermon preached here Alan referred to the psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989) who just before his death said that human beings are afraid of three things: 1. Other people, 2. “The noise in our own heads, in our own minds,” and of course, 3. Death. Alan said that although we pretend not to be afraid, we are. And this fear keeps us imprisoned “behind… a wall of indifference.”[2] He said we owe it to ourselves to wake up, to be aware of the fears in other people and ourselves.

Alan described his father as a “rough and ready” skilled laborer who had little time for the church. Although he died when Alan was twelve years old, Alan remembered him as a person of integrity, who loved the truth and had an earthy sense of humor.[3] When I think of Alan’s dad, a stonemason and bricklayer, I have a picture in my imagination of the burly native Hawaiians who move huge boulders in the river so that people can cross over when the waters inevitably rise.

Alan did something like this for us. As each of us makes our journey from one shore to the other, from fear to faith, we pass over the stones that Alan placed for us. He was a kind of contractor or architect of the inner life. Or to change the metaphor Alan preached, “When I think of how much time I waste on worry, I think of my life spent in the shopping mall of my imagination… One misses a bus or a plane. Have I missed my life?”[4] Alan was a conductor who made sure we didn’t miss our lives.

In his book Soul Making Alan writes, “My beliefs are not mine, they belong to all those who believe. I do, however, have my own way of believing, and while it is peculiar to me, it is by no means universal.”[5] This afternoon I am going to speak about Alan’s way of believing, three chapters on generosity, the school of love and our one family.

1. Generosity. Alan showed us that true faith is generous. He used the word constantly. It comes from the Greek word related to our words beget and generate.[6] Alan always said, “There are those for whom religion provides all the answers, and there are those for whom the answers, as important as they are, only lead to deeper and more disturbing questions.”[7] He was of the latter sort. He said, “it was not difficult for me to embrace contradictions.”[8] Alan was generous – generous to people of other faiths and no faith, to strangers, artists, the LGBTQ+ community, colleagues, friends and family.

The word “home” as a metaphor was difficult for Alan. He grew up in a tiny, cramped cold water flat and never wanted to go back. Although his parents regarded religion as something for middle and upper class people, they found it convenient to enroll Alan in an evangelical Sunday School during his grade school years. He began singing in a church choir and was famously present at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey (a little over a month ago he sang parts of “Zadok the Priest” to me).

Alan speaks with awe about the first time he experienced an Anglo Catholic liturgy and always trusted in the unity of the flesh and spirit. Alan often repeated that, “In those days one could move through the whole ecumenical movement without leaving the Church of England.”[9] For Alan, “believing was a kind of moving target… Other religions and all honest questioning… are part of God’s plan…Beliefs are a kind of ladder. When we get to our destination, the ladder can be kicked away.”[10]

2. School for Love. Above all Alan called faith a romance, a love story, an experience of God calling us and our response. He frequently described our existence as “a school for love” and thanked his children in particular for what they taught him. In his mature years Alan wrote a book encouraging ordained people to rediscover their calling. “My vision of an ordained person is that of a lover in a mad love affair.”[11] Part of what Alan liked about this metaphor is the mystery involved in it. He believed that although we desire explanations, “a human being is deeply hurt when he or she is seen only as a set of problems and not as an unfathomable mystery.”[12]

Alan honestly writes, “I have always been a somewhat reluctant believer, partly out of embarrassment and snobbery with regard to my fellow believers and partly because of the daring enormity of our beliefs.”[13] At one point Alan described the calling he felt to be a priest from age 15 as like a persistent toothache, an attraction to a crucified savior that psychologists would regard as unhealthy. He often called it falling in love.

When Alan asked an Irish Churchman if he should attend seminary with the monks in Mirfield or at more secular Oxford, that advisor told him that if he went to Oxford he could be a bishop, but if he went to Mirfield he might become a saint. Alan says, “being somewhat naïve and arrogant I opted for sainthood but [that didn’t go] too well.”[14] Alan’s point is that he was swept away by the romance. From the beginning he was more interested in falling in love than gaining power.

3. One Human Family. Thousands of times Alan said we are all part of one human family, that God loves everyone without exception. At Mirfield the monks taught him, “to believe in God as a means of saving me from believing in everything else… [from] giving my ultimate allegiance to anything else – to science, political ideology, instinct.”[15]

Alan defines decadence as “the state of believing that futility and absurdity are normal.” He writes that the way out of this is, “to recover the life of the imagination and to see the religious impulse as natural to us.”[16] Alan loves the joke about the messenger arriving at the Vatican who says, the Good News is that Jesus is coming! The bad news is that he’s coming to Salt Lake City. Alan says the real, “good news is that we are lovable and we are loved… The bad news is that we neither know nor believe it.”[17]

Maybe one of the things we love the most about Alan is his vulnerability. He was very open about his own personal failures. He wrote about how he felt that the world began to slip away from him sometime in the eighties and how he never fully recovered.[18]


A similar thing happened to him in seminary. During a crisis of faith the dean of Alan’s seminary would take him for afternoon walks along the moors. Alan said, “I received nothing but receptivity and love… It was as if he could see into my deepest self. He was able to show me that God loved me all the way through. He was the bearer of the miracle that I mattered… my struggle with other aspects of Christian belief are insignificant with the difficulty I have in accepting that I am loved.”[19]

Alan has always found that, “our resistance to the delight at the heart of all things” is dissipated by our connection to other people.[20] And that is how Alan found his way again when he became lost. He found his way through the love of the people in his family, his school of love, and through the care of this community. Your love showed Alan that in Ernest Hemmingway’s words, “life breaks all of us, but some grow. Some people grow at the broken places.”[21]

I have not even mentioned Alan’s love of theater and the arts, all that he did to build up everything that we see here, his friendship with Bill Swing and other colleagues here. I didn’t mention that he was my mentor even as we waited in the hallway for him to be admitted into the emergency room.

Thank you Alan for gathering us together, for placing the stones that we pass over in our pilgrimage from fear to faith. Thank you for showing us how to be generous, that this world is a school for love, that we are one human family.

No one knows what happens when you die, but I can imagine it being like walking through the moors and then into Alan’s warm study with books stacked everywhere. He looks up from his writing desk with a smile and says, “I’m so glad you are here.”

We started with just the first half of the prayer Alan intended to be used for people who are dying. I guess that means it is for each of us.

Alan said, “I will leave you with a prayer that one of the Franciscans left with me. “Oh my God, you are here. Oh my God, I am here. Oh my God, we are here and always, always, always you love us and always, always you love us. May the angels of God watch over you. May Mary and all the saints pray for you and the blessing of God be with you always.”


[1] “Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral: Oral History,” Interview transcript with Michael Lampen, Grace Cathedral Archives.

[2] “What makes us then fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom? What keeps us imprisoned behind the wall of indifference? What inhibits our going deeper? The psychiatrist R.D. Laing declared just before his death that we are all afraid of three things, other people, the noise in our own heads, our own minds, and of course death. We owe it to each other, you see? And we owe it to these babies. We owe it to each other to be awake and aware and to be awake and aware in these three areas of other people, not seeing them as enemies of being aware of what goes in our on, in our heads and our own certain death.” 

Alan Jones, “To Deepen and Be Deepened,” Sermon transcript ed. Niall Battson.

[3] Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) xi.

[4] “When I think of how much time I waste on worry I, I think of my life spent in the shopping mall of my imagination. And how much of my time is wasted on worrying and fretting? I wonder if it’s possible to miss one’s life in much the same way. One misses a bus or a plane. Have I missed my life? How much of my life has slipped away? Slipped by how much I have? I courted death while I was looking for life. And now and now by the grace of God. The story of the secret of life comes by one more time. Listen again to the description of another kind of community. They love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. And if they have something, they freely give to the one who has nothing.

Alan Jones, “Life Breaks All of Us, But Some Grow. Some Grow at the Broken Places,” Sermon transcript ed. Niall Battson.

[5] Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 5.

[6] In the Prologue to the Gospel of John ginomai and gennao appear. Making and begetting are connected to generosity.

[7] Alan Jones, Sacrifice and Delight: Spirituality for Ministry (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992) 6.

[8] Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity: Reconnect Your Spirit without Disconnecting Your Mind (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2005) xv.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity: Reconnect Your Spirit without Disconnecting Your Mind (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2005) xvii.

[11] Alan Jones, Sacrifice and Delight: Spirituality for Ministry (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992) 1.

[12] Ibid., 3.

[13] Ibid., 4-5.

[14] “Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral: Oral History,” Interview transcript with Michael Lampen, Grace Cathedral Archives.

[15] Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity: Reconnect Your Spirit without Disconnecting Your Mind (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2005) xvii.

[16] Ibid., xxiv.

[17] Alan Jones, Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 2.

[18] Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity: Reconnect Your Spirit without Disconnecting Your Mind (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2005) xix.

[19] Alan Jones, Exploring Spiritual Direction: An Essay on Christian Friendship (Minneapolis, MN: Seabury Press, 1982) 6.

[20] Alan Jones, Sacrifice and Delight: Spirituality for Ministry (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992) x.

[21] “Ernest Hemingway wrote, life Breaks all of us. Life breaks all of us, but some people grow at the broken places. And the good news is for broken people. And this is God’s mysterious work among us. This is the work of Lent. The biblical writers thought of this mending, this growing at the broken places in terms of restoring the covenant, the relationship we have with God, putting the world to rights by a God who suffers the passion of God and God’s passion for us.” Alan Jones, “Life Breaks All of Us, But Some Grow. Some Grow at the Broken Places,” Sermon transcript ed. Niall Battson.

Dear Cathedral Family,

Our Dean Emeritus Alan Jones’ death this week is such a loss for us. I just came out of our weekly clergy meeting. We feel his absence so profoundly. I’m very grateful for all the people who reached out to the cathedral by email and through social media, sharing stories about his life.

Alan’s funeral will be at 2 pm on Wednesday, January 24, 2024.

For a few of you, Alan’s death seemed very sudden. Since mid-August, Alan’s health has been declining, and over the last few weeks, he has grown uncharacteristically silent. Alan has been very ill over the last five months, although we have also had some profound conversations during that time. I’m very grateful for the way Cricket took care of Alan over these last years. She had such a tender way with him every day as she helped him manage ordinary concerns and spiritual ones too.

Every night this week, I have been up late reading Alan’s books and articles, and listening to his old recordings. Alan profoundly understood our shortcomings as human beings. And yet he also constantly reminded us that our life is a work of art, that we are a mystery and the work of God’s hand. We do not need to justify ourselves or deny our fragility or mortality.

Alan taught us that we need to wake up to who we are. That when we look in the mirror, we should see someone who is unique and unrepeatable, someone who is remarkable and loved by God.

During this time, more than ever, I am grateful for the Grace Cathedral community, which Alan nourished for a quarter of a century. Below you will find a poem Alan particularly appreciated by Derek Walcott, and information about our upcoming 

Annual Meeting.

Love,
Malcolm

“Love After Love”
Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread, Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


Join the Annual Meeting and Cast Your Votes!
January 28, at 9:30 am

Join us next Sunday morning at the Annual Meeting in person in the Nave or online from 9:30 to 10:30 am to participate in this important annual expression of the cathedral’s essential work, dreams, and joys. All pledging members are eligible to vote. Your vote matters, so please make your 2024 pledge today!

Dean Emeritus, The Very Rev. Alan William Jones 
March 5, 1940 – January 14, 2024

Dear Cathedral Friends,

I am writing with sad news. Dean Emeritus, The Very Rev. Alan William Jones, died peacefully on Sunday morning in his room at a retirement community in San Francisco. His wife, Cricket, spent the morning with him and stepped out of the room to visit with a friend. When she came back to his bedside, she discovered that his spirit had just departed. Early in the afternoon, we anointed Alan with oil and prayed for him.

Alan participated in various staff gatherings and faithfully attended services at the cathedral for many years until his health declined precipitously at the end of last summer. During our visits over the last few weeks, he stopped talking and became more withdrawn. 

For nearly a quarter of a century, Alan served as Dean of Grace Cathedral. He was one of the most powerful preachers of his generation and helped make the cathedral one of the global centers of Christianity. During his tenure, we constructed Chapter House, the Great Steps, and our parking garage. With Lauren Artress, Alan helped to make walking the labyrinth into a religious practice observed by millions of people. Alan inaugurated our Forum series and represented the cathedral admirably in the community.

We feel deeply grateful to Cricket for the wise and compassionate care she provided Alan, especially as his health worsened. 

This week, we will be reviewing the instructions Alan left for his burial service and will notify the community when we have set a time and date.

Alan Jones was deeply steeped in Benedictine spirituality. We will never forget his generous vision for reimagining the church and for a Christianity whose primary message is that God loves everyone without exception. 

Love,

Malcolm

The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
Dean of Grace Cathedral

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2)

“We stand with one hand on the door looking into another world, / That is this world.” The farmer poet Wendell Berry (1934-) wrote these words about Christmas in a poem called “Remembering that It Happened Once.”[1] Here’s the whole poem.

“Remembering that it happened once, / We cannot turn away the thought, / As we go out, cold, to our barns / Toward the long night’s end, that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened, / That we ourselves, opening a stall / (A latch thrown open countless times / Before), might find them breathing there, /”

“Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw, / The mother kneeling over Him, / The husband standing in belief / He scarcely can believe, in light / That lights them from no source we see, / An April morning’s light, the air / Around them joyful as a choir. / We stand with one hand on the door, / Looking into another world / That is this world, the pale daylight / Coming just as before, our chores / To do, the cattle all awake, / Our own white frozen breath hanging / In front of us; and we are here / As we have never been before, / Sighted as not before, our place / Holy, although we knew it not.”[2]

On Christmas Eve we stand between worlds. And for a moment, if we pay attention, we see our place as holy. We do not always experience our life this way. We inhabit a confusing world full of terror and distraction. These days wars in the Middle East, Ukraine and Africa cast a long shadow over the human family. Every year we become even more aware that our indifference is endangering the planet itself.

Other forms of sadness threaten to overcome us. Perhaps you have been lying awake at night because you have a child who is in serious trouble. Or perhaps, you have suddenly found yourself alone in the world to face the storms of life without someone to lean on. Or perhaps some kind of addiction holds you in its grip, or you are looking back to brighter years that you know are gone forever and will never come back.[3]

To the shepherds, to all of us tonight the angel announces a sign. A young woman is having a baby called Emmanuel which means God with us. This is the message: we are not alone or abandoned. The sign shows that joy is at the heart of being alive. Because of this baby, the world is being turned upside down. Violence is not at the center of reality, love is.[4]

Seeing the world like this may sound easy, but there is a catch. In order to experience this joy we have to be satisfied with living in a mystery. This does not mean that we have to believe what is unbelievable, that we have to give up critical thinking, or that we are not allowed to have doubts. It’s just that the infinite will not fit into our finite minds. And so our existence is made strange by the kind of creatures we are. We long for the infinite but can never really control or comprehend it.

In the way that a mother gives birth to her child, we become who we are by giving ourselves away. For me this is what makes being a parent such a transcendent experience. Taking care of our children, walking in the oak woodlands, reading stories at sunset after a warm bath, all this made joy an even more central part of my life. Joy is that experience of being called into existence as a kind of creature who is different than God and yet who has a share in the mystery of God. We are made for this delight.[5]

Our friend and Dean Emeritus Alan Jones used to remind us that in Christianity the, “things of God can be handled and held.” In fact, “[T]he things of God can be kissed and caressed.” He talks about how strange it is that Christ enters into history in order to offer us the gift of peace. And that for this reason the true Christ can never assume the shape of violence. The baby and her child are a sign of three great truths. First, the world is a gift. Second the nature of the gift is communion (for all people and the world). Third, this true communion celebrates diversity and difference. Let me say only a little more about each of these.[6]

1. The Gift. Ninety-nine years ago this week the astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of the first galaxy outside our own Milky Way. By 2019 we believed that there were 200 billion galaxies. Now after the New Horizon space probe we think there are 2 trillion galaxies.[7] This is the world we inhabit. This is the generosity of God.

One of my favorite Christmas moments happened years ago, after everyone went home from the midnight service. I turned off the lights and closed up my old church. In the cold, alone on that holy night with the stars, with trillions of worlds stretching across the heavens, I felt God with me, overwhelmed by the miracle that we exist. All of this beauty, everything that is good, is a gift from God.[8]

And this is the peculiarity and the scandal of our faith. It is not chiefly about big ideas or philosophical principles but a God who is particular. At Christmas we celebrate and take delight in the God who can be touched, who can be held as a baby.[9]


At the Christmas pageant this morning we asked children what they wanted to pray for. A boy said, “For the fighting to stop.” Loud applause followed. A girl announced that she wanted her neutered cat to have kittens. Another prayed that a particular candidate would not be elected as president (also to enthusiastic applause). But the most beautiful thing of all was Sinclair our baby Jesus sitting on her father’s lap giving us such joy.

2. Communion. I’ve been reading Jill Lepore’s book These Truths, a one volume history of America. American history always fascinated me but there is so much that I missed.[10] She writes about the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved Americans and what it felt like for them. “In South Carolina the proclamation was read out to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. At its final lines, the soldiers began to sing, quietly at first, and then louder: My country ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing!”

She goes on, “American slavery had lasted for centuries. It had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the lives of millions more… It had poisoned a people and a nation. It had turned hearts to stone… The American odyssey had barely begun. From cabins and fields they left. Freed men and women didn’t always head north.”

“They often went south or west, traveling hundreds of miles by foot, on horseback, by stage and by train, searching. They were husbands in search of wives, wives in search of children, mothers and fathers looking for children, children looking for parents, chasing word and rumors about where their loved ones had been sold, sale after sale, across the country. Some of their wanderings lasted years. They sought their own union, a union of their beloved.” This year at Christmas as I’m imagining the joy of those reunions, I’m reminded how we are made for communion.

3. Diversity. Finally let me say a short word about diversity. The two largest religious denominations in America do not permit women to be ordained as leaders of churches. This week Pope Francis gave permission for Roman Catholic priests to give same sex couples blessings in private. He said that these should not in any way look like marriage ceremonies.[11] In our church we have women, trans, gay and lesbian people serving at every level of ordained ministry. We believe that God is present when same sex couples get married here in church. I have experienced such a deep sense of joy at their ordinations and weddings. I wish every person could see it.

We are all different from each other. But this is not a problem. We should not feel threatened by this. We are not competing. There is not one of us that has gotten it all right. Our diversity is part of God’s gift to us. We are one human family.

What happens when we do not receive the world, communion with each other and diversity as a gift? The theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) says that we become incurvatus se, that is curved in on ourself. We refuse to be fully alive. We are cut off from each other and the very sources of what should be our greatest happiness. We become distanced from our true self. This is a kind of hell that we all experience in varying degrees. In this condition we become walled off from joy.

But tonight is holy. It is time to make peace with the mystery and come back home. For many years the famous religion scholar Huston Smith was a member of my grandfather’s congregation in Massachusetts. He said that churches waiting for Christmas are like a child with her face pressed against the window on a cold winter night. Then she runs through the household saying, “Daddy’s home. Daddy’s home.”

Tonight we share this joy in our Christmas carols and in stories whose meaning can never be exhausted. The world is not made of atoms but of stories. Our stories are imperfect ways of expressing an unsayable encounter with the infinite God. Tonight we are here as we never have been before. There is joy at the very heart of being alive. As a mother gives birth to her child let us become who we are by giving our self away.


Because in these 2 trillion galaxies, the things of God can be kissed and caressed. The world is a gift. The nature of that gift is communion. True communion celebrates diversity and difference. We stand with one hand on the door looking into another world…”


[1] I’ve been thinking so much about my friend Alan Jones as he stands at the door between worlds. I’ve been trying to imagine what he would say if he could speak clearly about what this experience is like for him.

[2] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (NY: Counterpoint, 2014).

[3] This paragraph comes from a sermon preached by Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris at Trinity Church in Boston on Christmas Day 1960.

[4] “In a confusing world, in a confusing world, it’s no wonder the cry often goes up. Give us a sign, give us a sign, show us what’s what. And the prophet Isaiah says, look, a young woman is having a baby. Emmanuel. God is with us. And the message is, we are not hated or abandoned. The sign a young woman is having a baby tells us that joy is the true mark of being alive. And because of this baby, the world has been turned around. Violence is not at the center of reality, but there’s a catch. To experience this joy of being loved, you have to be content to live within a mystery. I don’t mean by that you have to give up critical thinking or never having doubts. It’s just that the infinite will not fit into finite minds. So this journey of advent reminds us just how very strange Christianity is.”

Alan Jones, “Imagine it’s December 1941.”

[5] “We become who we are by giving ourselves away as a mother gives birth to her baby. So we need a revolution in our thinking so that joy, joy wants more, can be the driving energy of our lives. The joy of being human is to be called into existence as a being other than God. And yet one who shares in the mystery of God. And when we look at Mary and her baby, God’s graciousness is breathtaking. The sheer giftedness of everything. And you won’t see yourself, the world and others are right unless your first reaction is delight. I still have a picture in my mind one Christmas Eve, uh, during the day here when we had a uh, a little baby playing the part of the baby Jesus in the bishop’s pageant. And three elderly women lent over the uh, baby carriage and just were looking at the baby saying, yes, yes, yes. I thought, oh, I’d like people to do that to me.” Ibid.

[6] “And this is the scandal of Christianity. The things of God can be handled and held. The things of God can be kissed and caressed. It is very, very strange. And the strangeness deepens Christ offers in himself a peace that enters history always as a gift that can be received only as a gift the true Christ. The true Christ can never, never assume the shape of violence. The young woman and her baby are a sign of three great truths. The first is then that the world is a gift. And God’s gift to us as a people, as a planet is communion. And thirdly, true communion is the celebration of diversity and difference. So we’re not celebrating generic humanity but human beings in their glorious particularity of Susan and George and Fred and Barbara.” Ibid.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galaxy

[8] Gratitude lies at the heart of our most memorable encounters with the Holy.

[9] My brother Andrew’s wife Courtney is pregnant with their second child now. I find myself thinking about that little niece all the time. She brings me such joy. When she’s around I want to play with her all the time. When I was about five years old I knew that at one time I had been a cute little boy and remembered all the fuss that teenaged girls would make over me. As I got older, I was aware that the world was less interested in me. When I became even older I realized just how precious a baby can be.

[10] Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (NY: W.W. Norton, 2018) 299-300.

[11] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis Allows Priests to Bless Same-Sex Couples, The New York Times, 19 December 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/18/world/europe/pope-gay-lesbian-same-sex-blessing.html

Dear Friends,

Many of you may already have heard the news that the Rev Austin K. Rios was elected on Saturday to serve as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of California.

The energy here at the electing convention at Grace Cathedral felt electric. One hundred sixty clergy voters and one hundred and ninety-two lay voters participated in a bicameral body for the election, which chose Rev Rios in the second ballot. Rios then addressed the convention through an online video connection from his church in Rome, Italy. His enthusiasm, even from so many time zones away, felt contagious.

This week, Bishop Marc Andrus told me that the next steps involve a confirmation of our election results by the bishops and standing committees of the churches in the Episcopal Church both here in the United States and abroad. No one expects any controversies, and we should see Austin Rios arriving in California in March.

His ordination as a bishop is scheduled to take place at Grace Cathedral on Saturday, May 4, 2024. Bishop Marc will help to provide him with an orientation to our Diocese and then will retire in July.

For the last five months, we have been working to update the wireless system at the cathedral to accommodate so many voters. We expected each person there to have multiple devices, each trying to connect, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that all the electronic voting went so well.

Our volunteers and staff were very welcoming and did a fantastic job of making everyone from the Diocese feel at home. I am so grateful to everyone at Grace Cathedral for our ongoing ministry of hospitality. We welcome hundreds of new people to the cathedral every week, and all of us are involved directly or indirectly in this important ministry. It is one of my favorite features of our Cathedral life together.

As we continue to travel through the Advent season together, I am praying that during this dark season, you are seeing the light of Christ shining steadily in our lives.

Love,

Malcolm

The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Dean of Grace Cathedral

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1).

1. ‘A hui hou. Stay awake. Stay awake. In 2004 my best friend was an opera singer named Jennifer Lopez. Jenn is not the famous actor known as J. Lo (although the two were born a year apart). In her early forties doctors diagnosed Jenn with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She returned to her parent’s house in California to die.

I visited her every Wednesday. The first question she would always ask was, “How is your family?” and the second question would be about a sick person in the congregation or my dissertation. She understood what mattered to me. Jenn was the perfect confidante. I could speak honestly to her about my frustrations with my dissertation advisor or the church leadership without worrying that she might think less of me. Jenn always gave people the benefit of the doubt.[1]

Jenn learned to sing in our church and I can imagine her as a girl first beginning to realize her great talent. On some visits we would watch videotapes of her operas. I loved watching her sweep down the stage in a flowing dress singing so powerfully. Her face in those performances showed so much emotion and sensitivity.

Once I confided to her that sometimes when I watched an opera singer or listened to a musician like a cellist, I almost secretly fell in love with the performer and tried to imagine what their life was like offstage. “Well this is it!” she joked as she gestured to her wheelchair. We spent hours laughing together.

Strangely enough my favorite images of Jenn come from her family photograph albums. Because the colors in those pictures seemed brighter than real life they were particularly appropriate for her spirit. Images from band trips, graduations, summer parties and family gatherings were a wonderful collage expressing her youthfulness, energy and all-around zaniness.

Over time Jenn lost the ability to speak, but because we spent so much time together I could understand her. More than most Jenn loved life and there were times, as it was withdrawn from her, that she despaired. Sometimes I still can hear the moaning sound that at the end of her life was the only way she could express this disappointment. But Jenn never complained, never lost interest.

Above all the two of us loved Jesus. Before she got sick she had begun the process of getting ordained as a priest. If only we could have had a long career together serving God’s people! When I think back to those Wednesdays I realize that we talked a lot about death. But my overwhelming memory is how awake we were – awake to the simplest joys of life and to tragedy. We were awake to the way God’s invisible love surrounds us like a thick blanket on a winter night.

2. The darkness we experienced together is the darkness of Advent. Today we celebrate the first Sunday of the new year. The church calendar could have started with the joy of Easter, or the newness and vulnerability of Christmas, or the fiery energy of Pentecost. But instead we begin in the shadow of war, hatred and sorrow. We begin in darkness: waiting, singing and praying for new light. Yesterday hundreds were killed as war returned to Gaza. We pray for the end of violence in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine. We refuse to turn our eyes away from the suffering.

In America as the secular world prepares for a consumer Christmas, Christians could hardly be more out of step. We are awake, waiting for Christ to come in glory at the end of time. The older I get the more I treasure our Advent hymns. We sing, “Zion hears the watchman singing; her heart with joyful hope is springing, she wakes and hurries through the night…” (Hymn 61).[2]

On this first Sunday of the church year, as we await the advent of Christ, we begin a new story about Jesus. The principle way we know about Jesus is through the four gospels. The word gospel means good news. Because three of the four gospels share so much in common and look so similar we call them the synoptic gospels. Each of our three year cycle of Sunday readings is based on one of them (with the Gospel of John filling out the rest of each year).

Matthew uses five sections (like the Torah or the five books of Moses) to show that Jesus is a new Moses. Luke describes Jesus as the Lord’s royal servant who brings God’s light to the nations of the world. John explains how Jesus reunites us with God in a way that we could never accomplish on our own.

3. Today we are entering the year of Mark. Mark explains how humanity comes to have a new start. He writes about how a new reality called the Kingdom of God comes into history and transforms it. Mark uses a simpler vocabulary and grammar to form powerful, compact sentences. His favorite word in Greek is euthus. It means immediately. It comes up so often that sometimes translators just leave it out.

Mark presents the hearer or reader with a choice about who Jesus is. The only time Mark is really direct about his own position is in the first sentence of the gospel when he writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1).

The Gospel of Mark has three sections. The first takes place in Galilee and the last in Jerusalem. The middle section occurs as Jesus travels between the two places. In the first section the world wonders who Jesus is. Mark quotes Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) describing Jesus as a kind of messenger from God. At Jesus’ baptism a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mk. 1). Jesus heals people, casts out their demons and forgives their sins. He tells them about God’s kingdom using stories about a sower casting seeds, and about a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant.

In the second section of Mark, Jesus’ friends are struggling to understand who he is. Jesus asks, “but who do you say I am.” Peter boldly calls Jesus the Messiah (Mk. 8). At the time Peter still has in mind a conquering military hero who will overthrow the Roman authorities. Jesus subverts the whole idea of a messiah. He teaches them that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to be serve others. On the mountain two of Jesus’ friends see him talking with Elijah and Moses. From an overshadowing cloud a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (Mk. 9).

The final section of Mark shows how Jesus becomes king. A royal procession takes Jesus into Jerusalem where he teaches in the temple. Mark writes, “a large crowd was listening to him with delight” (Mk. 12:37). Later sitting on the Mount of Olives four of his friends ask him when the end will come. Jesus answers with the words we just heard. No one, not the angels nor even the Son of Humanity will know the time. He says literally, “keep on being awake.”[3] Mark uses the word grēgoreō like the name Gregory. It means to be alert or awake, literally woke.

Jesus becomes the Messiah or king by being crucified. A Roman centurion seems to be the only one who understands. He says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mk. 15). When the women go to the tomb an angelic young man in white tells them that Jesus has been raised. The gospel ends abruptly as they flee, “… for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark confronts every person with this question. Who will Jesus be for you? The twentieth century monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) writes, “This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached: in fact, it is the only true revolution, because all others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self.”[4]

4. In this season of Advent we have the chance to prepare a place in ourselves and in the world to receive Christ. There is so much in the Divine plan that we cannot understand, dark places, unmapped territories and worlds to discover. I invite you to encounter Jesus in our present moment. Let me close with a poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes called “Longing.”

“Unsuspecting at first, of course, / you only gradually begin to feel / an urge, a leaning, / slow to become a promise, / a yearning that will become / its own gift, given from beyond. / It grows from a tiny seed, / a grace that is not your doing, / a single cell: / a change of season, / a subtle turning of the heart, / until by some grace you will know. / But now you do not yet, / you are still longing. / But know this, you are Mary, / and Gabriel is near.”[5]

On my very last visit with Jennifer before going out of town, we both knew that we probably would not see each other again in this world. I prayed so hard for a miracle that would instantly make her whole and healthy again. What I discovered was someone who was truly awake – who loved Jesus. That night in a dream her grandmother Margaret, who had died when she was eight years old, kept pulling her hand.

At the end of our visit, I asked if there was anything she wanted to say before I unplugged her laser pointer for the last time. She pointed out the letters for “Mahalo,” or thank you in Hawaiian. I told her ‘a hui hou which means until we meet again. She was so tired and she shut her eyes as I read evening prayer with the Song of Simeon. It goes, “Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.” I closed my prayerbook, looked into her face and said goodbye. She opened her eyes, smiled back at me and mouthed the words ‘a hui hou.

‘A hui hou. Stay awake. Stay awake. Come Lord Jesus.


[1] We spent those mornings talking about our families, dreams and worries. We talked about the most ordinary things and the profoundest. We talked about politics, art and our love of Jesus. Her commentary on the family and friends in those photographs was priceless. She was smart enough to recognize all of our crazy inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies and frailties, but kind enough to love us even more because of them. Above all Jenn forgave the people around her for the rough edges that make us human. I like to think that she cared for us oddballs more than the normal people.

Mem Jenn Lopez (8-14-04).

[2] Hymn 61, 1980 Hymnal (NY: Church Publishing Company, 1980).

[3] Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989) 202.

[4] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961) 144.

[5] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Longing.” https://unfoldinglight.net/2023/11/30/longing/

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“I pray that… God… may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation… so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…” (Eph. 1).

1. Our life is a journey towards the Holy One. Longing for our true home, we search for God. In his autobiography the twentieth century English monk Bede Griffiths (1906-1993) writes about the 15,000 to 17,000 year old cave paintings discovered in Lescaux France. At the end of long meandering and dangerous underground tunnels through the darkness there are 600 painted and drawn animals in a cavern that is 66 feet wide and 16 feet high.[1]

Scholars believe that these sacred images provided a means for people to enter into communion with the Holy and that the long passageway represented the difficulty of approaching the divine mystery. Through all of human existence people have created calendars and holy places: stone circles, altars, tombs and pyramids.

Human beings have prepared themselves to come into the divine presence by dancing, fasting, praying, and lighting candles. That journey from the mouth of the cave to the dark interior is the passage from the outer world to the inner world. We see it in literature: Aeneas in the underworld, Odysseus coming home, Theseus traveling to the center of the labyrinth.

The Greek philosopher Plato writes that we are like people in a cave looking at shadows on the wall, not knowing the reality they refer to. Our life is like this. We understand God, reality and other people through symbols. When it comes to God we often mistake the symbol for the thing in itself. That is called idolatry. A modern version of this is to think that science can tell us about the meaning of things, that it can answer questions like whether or not we have free will or are in love.

A sense for the mystery transcending the world lies at the heart of all religions. The symbols help us to come into the presence of that holy reality which is our true home. One of the peculiar symbols we have is a feast called The Reign of Christ. We celebrate it today on the last Sunday of the Christian year. People in our church have only had this on the calendar since 1970. I’ve always felt ambivalent about the feast in part because, after the French Revolution, the nineteenth century Roman Catholic church often opposed modernizing trends like the development of democracy in Europe.

Pope Pius XI instituted the feast for Roman Catholics in 1925.[2] In his encyclical written in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution the pope rejected nationalism and secularization.[3] He hoped to remind faithful people that loyalty to Christ the King is more important than national identity. This turns out to be a timely message for us.

Pamela Cooper-White our Forum guest and preacher a few weeks ago has written extensively about the threat of Christian Nationalism to our democracy.[4] She points to the widespread use of Christian symbols during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Far too many people in America consider themselves Christian Nationalists. They support imposing a government that explicitly favors Christians. They believe that the United States was at one time a Christian nation and should be again.

2. Cooper-White vehemently opposes Christian Nationalism I do too. The values Jesus teaches have nothing to do with White nationalism or Christian Nationalism. This is true of our gospel reading today. In the last days before his arrest Jesus privately sits with a group of friends on the Mount of Olives. They ask about the end of time and he shares three parables that are really about what we do now in the present.

In the Parable of the Bridesmaids Jesus teaches us to live joyfully and wisely, one might say “mindfully.” In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus encourages us to be daring and focused on how our life can bear fruit. Finally, today he tells the story of the sheep and the goats, not to frighten us, but to show what a blessing generosity and compassion are.[5]

In the First Letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Jesus makes a similar point. Ultimately, your nationality or religion, what you believe, whether or not you are a Christian, is far less important than being a person dedicated to love, especially loving those Jesus calls “the least of these.”

On Tuesday at the Interfaith breakfast Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi used exactly this story to describe genuine faith. And yet the parable of the sheep and goats has a certain subtlety. For me it cannot be simply boiled down to the transactional idea that only good people will enter God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ story, at the end of the age, all nations are gathered together before the throne. Matthew writes, “The Son of Man… will separate them from one another…” (Mt. 25). To me the Greek word “them” seems to refer to the nations so that the Son of Man judges nations or groups of people rather than individuals.

The people being judged did not have an ulterior motive in their earlier actions. They feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger (xenos), give the naked (gumnos) clothing, take care of the sick and visit prisoners. They do this out of compassion not to gain favor from God. They love people for their own sake and then are surprised to learn that what they did to the least they did to the Son of Man.

Another way to put it is that God made them sheep or goats. It’s not like their good deeds somehow changed what kind of beings they were. Every human being we encounter is an unrecognized Jesus. Every person is God’s beloved child. I do not believe that God destines certain people to eternal suffering. I also know that there have been times that all of us have passed by naked, hungry strangers and that other times we have helped. We are sheep and goats. The point is that our compassion and goodness gives pleasure to God. And there is something in every human being that is divine.


3. What we are talking about is a kingdom not of domination but of servanthood. This is the kind of king we celebrate in Jesus today. Protestant reformers like John Calvin (1509-1564) described Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King.[6] Jesus is a new Moses and stands in the tradition of prophets who remind us to care for the most vulnerable people in our society. Jesus is a priest. A priest is someone like our old friend Ellen Clark-King, who in her words and life shows us how God is present.[7] Finally, Jesus is king – we owe our primary allegiance to God. God is powerful but stoops down to help us.

I want to talk about one example from history. This Tuesday the Episcopal Church will celebrate the Feast of Kamehameha IV (1834-1863) and Emma (1836-1855), the sovereigns of the Kingdom of Hawaii. With fourteen other students they attended the Royal School together as children. As the Crown Prince of Hawaii Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) traveled through America. People refused to serve him and used racial slurs. He experienced racism here that he had never encountered in England and France. It made him even more wary of growing American influence in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Emma’s great uncle was King Kamehameha I, the king who united the Hawaiian Islands and her grandfather was his English advisor. Her hanai’d father was an English doctor. After Kamehameha IV became King and married Queen Emma, the royal couple cultivated their connections to Great Britain and invited the Anglican church to come to the Hawaii. This was in part to counter the influence of Congregational missionaries America. The king translated the Book of Common prayer into Hawaiian. They gave the property that became St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

In less than a lifetime foreign diseases had killed off four fifths of the Hawaiian population. The royal couple profoundly cared about the people they served and wanted them to have access to European medicine. One day the queen announced that she would go out with a notebook and solicit funds for a new hospital. The king asked, “What will people think if their Queen goes out begging?” Emma replied, “They will think this is important enough that we will not rest on false pride.” The king replied, “My dear if you are that determined, I will go as your representative.”[8] The two helped create Queen’s the main hospital on Oahu.[9] They also founded ‘Iolani, a school for boys and St. Andrew’s Priory as a school for girls.

The two cared about the ancient Hawaiian ways but they also recognized that the world was changing and that Hawaiians would need to be educated in order to participate in it. Their greatest strength may be the way they humbled themselves for the sake of their people. Perhaps that is what makes a sovereign most like Christ the king.

Late in life the poet Denise Levertov became a Christian. All along she sensed something calling her. This is the poem she wrote when she was younger called “The Secret.”

“Two girls discover / the secret of life/ in a sudden line of /poetry.// I who don’t know the / secret wrote / the line. They /told me// (through a third person) / they had found it / but not what it was / not even // what line it was. No doubt / by now, more than a week / later, they have forgotten / the secret, // the line, the name of / the poem. I love them   

for finding what / I can’t find, // and for loving me / for the line I wrote, / and for forgetting it / so that // a thousand times, till death / finds them, they may / discover it again, in other / lines // in other / happenings. And for / wanting to know it, /for // assuming there is   

such a secret, yes, / for that / most of all.”[10]

Sometimes it feels like we are in a long meandering tunnel through the darkness. This poem is about those moments when the meaning of our life seems clear, and the knowledge that while this experience will not last, it will be replaced by another. Thank you for listening to this exploration of the Reign of Christ, for remembering the life of Kamehameha and Emma. May our dream be realized of a kingdom not of domination but of servanthood.

Our life is a journey towards the Holy One. Longing for our true home, we search for God. Let us live joyfully, wisely, mindfully, with daring, bearing the fruit of generosity and kindness. Let every person we encounter be for us Christ the king who draws us more deeply into truth.


[1] Bede Griffiths, The Golden String: An Autobiography (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1954 and 1980) 181ff.

[2] The world almost had to stop having kings before the church would institute this feast.

[3] “Feast of Christ the King,” Wikipedia, November 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_Christ_the_King

[4] Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2023).

[5] Matthew Boulton, “The Least of These: SALT’s Commentary for the Reign of Christ the King Sunday,” SALT, 20 November 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/11/16/the-least-of-these-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-reign-of-christ-the-king-sunday

[6] John Calvin, “To Know the Purpose for Which Christ Was Sent by the Father, and What He Conferred Upon Us, We Must Look Above All at Three Things in Him: The Prophetic Office, Kingship, and Priesthood,” Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 494ff.

[7] In seminary we learned the ABC’s, a mnemonic aid to remember what priests do. Priests are empowered to pronounce absolution on those who have sinned, bless people and objects and consecrate bread and wine in communion.

[8] Miriam Rappolt, Queen Emma: A Woman of Vision (Kailua, HI: Press Pacifica, 1991) 71-2.

[9] “Hale Mai O Ke Wahine Alii.” Miriam Rappolt, Queen Emma: A Woman of Vision (Kailua, HI: Press Pacifica, 1991) 74.

[10] Denise Levertov, “The Secret,” O Taste and See: New Poems (New York: New Directions, 1964). 

“I sought the Lord, who answered me and delivered me out of all my terror” (Ps. 34).

Inspired by Charles Dicken’s novel David Copperfield, Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. In the book she describes rural poverty, the effects of the opioid crisis and a scene that is so upsetting that both my wife and I independently had to stop reading and look away.

The main character and narrator Demon is born in the aftermath of the collapse of coal-mining as an industry in his Virginia town. He longs to see the ocean but wonders if he will ever get there. His father died before he was even born. Demon’s mom marries an abusive step-father and herself dies of an OxyContin overdose on his 11th birthday.

Demon lives and works (without being paid) with foster children on a tobacco farm. For a brief while he is taken in by the McCobb family with four small children under the age of seven. They too take most of the pay check he earns sorting garbage at a local convenience store.

When their car gets repossessed and they have to move, the family abandons him. He takes to the road with his backpack and his life savings in a peanut butter jar and tries to find a distant grandmother he has never met. It is terrifying to read about a twelve year old hitching rides with strangers.

At a truck stop he tries to escape a prostitute by going into the men’s room. He doesn’t realize it but she follows him in and sees him sitting in the stall. When he comes out she accuses him of stealing her money. The store clerk searches his backpack and gives every cent he has to the woman. The boy runs out into the night with nothing.

Intense misery, injustice and cruelty make us want to look away. Think of the way we sometimes respond to people with horrifying sores who we encounter on the streets here in San Francisco, or the families whose loved ones were murdered or kidnapped by Hamas, or the near total destruction of Gaza. Suffering like this can feel like a threat to our innermost self because we know how vulnerable we are too (becoming a parent exposes us to a radically new vulnerability). When we see too much suffering we cannot look anymore.

Jesus does not get to this point. Jesus sees people for who they really are and loves them. Jesus is not afraid of his own vulnerability. Jesus does not look away. That was true as he went from town to town with his friends in Galilee and today too. This is the most important thing to know in order to understand Jesus’ primary teaching.

In his Gospel, Matthew describes Jesus as the new Moses. Let me give three quick examples. 1. Just as the Pharoah killed male Hebrew infants in the book of Exodus, Herod tried to kill the new king by murdering babies in the Gospel of Matthew. 2. There are five books in the Torah. In Matthew Jesus has five main discourses. 3. Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. In Matthew, Jesus gives the most important sermon of his life on the Mount. Earlier Matthew writes that many in the crowds who have come to the wilderness to see him include people who are, “sick… afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, ” and presumably those who help them (Mt. 4:24).1

Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who thirst and hunger for righteousness.” We call these the beatitudes and it is easy to misunderstand them. The Greek word Jesus repeats is markarios. The dictionary definition for it is, “pertaining to being happy, with the implication of enjoying favorable circumstances.”2 On social media when we see the hashtag “blessed” we expect pretty much the same things the ancient Greeks did. Blessed people are happy, rich, healthy, attractive, strong, popular, often ruthless, sometimes deceptive and aggressive. In the face of this common sense Jesus says, blessed are the poor, those who are mourning, the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, the persecuted and reviled.3

Jesus is not telling us to try to become poor in spirit or to make ourselves sad so that we can mourn. Jesus changes what it means to be blessed. Let me take a short grammatical digression. Languages have a category of expression that we call mood. It describes the speaker’s view of an event’s reality – something that is certain, wished for, possible or demanded. The indicative mood makes a statement or asks a question. For instance, “Caroline sings in the choir,” or “Is she the newest member?” The imperative demands that someone do something. For instance, “Sing us a hymn Caroline.”

In this case Jesus uses the indicative. He is describing how his hearers are, not telling them how they should be. In the world of Jesus, God’s blessing always comes first. We do not act a certain way and earn God’s love. God loves us first. This love gives us strength to not ignore our own vulnerability. Jesus does not turn away from the person

who is addicted, or shattered by suffering, or afflicted by nightmarish circumstances. Jesus looks into each person’s heart and says, “You are blessed.”

On Thursday night Augusta, one of the candidates for bishop, mentioned an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien called “On Fairy Stories.”4 The author of The Lord of the Rings analyzes the genre of writing that we call fantasy. Before his generation there were stories like those of Jules Verne that accepted the world as it is and changed one element of it (like in The Time Machine). But Tolkien and his friends gave us something new –whole imagined worlds with entirely different rules than our reality.

One of the defining features of these stories is what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe. A catastrophe is a sudden disastrous event. The Greek prefix eu means good. A eucatastrophe occurs when there seems to be no way out, no reason for hope, then, suddenly something completely good happens. Like the prince’s kiss, the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars or Harry Potter returning to life again for his last battle with evil Voldemort.

For Tolkien in the face of universal defeat, these stories, give us a “sudden and miraculous grace never to be counted on to recur.” They give us a taste of joy that presents us with, “a sudden glimpse of… underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation but a satisfaction” of the question of whether or not life has meaning.

Tolkien goes on to say that the Gospels, the stories of Jesus, are about a kind of eucatastrophe in history. The story of Jesus changes everything, all human history. This story begins and ends in joy – the joy Mary experienced when she learns she is pregnant with Jesus, to the joyful reunion of friends after Jesus is raised from the dead. It is the story of someone who is not afraid of his vulnerability, who can see every kind of suffering and not turn away. This is Christian joy, the gloria, the good news.

In Kingsolver’s novel the orphan Demon Copperhead longs to be adopted by a loving family. This morning through baptism, God will adopt 15 people into this, “new life of grace.” The courage and openness of Jesus will help them to, “love others in the power of the spirit,” and, “to grow into the fullness of God’s peace and glory.” This experience of Jesus, of the one who does not look away, will lead them to have “inquiring and discerning hearts,” “the courage to will and persevere,” and “the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.”5 In this hard world, they will be baptized into joy.

Some people (like Robert Sapolsky) believe that we are accidents, mere biological machines determined in all our decisions by the hard realities of evolution. But Jesus

gives us another way. He shows us how to experience our life as a gift from a God who loves us even when our suffering makes us unrecognizable to anyone else.

Although I rarely surf on Sundays, a week ago just before sunset, I longed to see the ocean. I ended up paddling out at Ocean Beach into some of the best waves of the year. Distant horsetail clouds were darkening with the setting sun. Everything seemed so still along the whole coast from Point Reyes to Pedro Point and Mt. Tamalpais was an image of serenity. The warm offshore breezes formed the waves into perfect tubes and the world felt completely right. That is the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.6

Do not look away. The eucatastrophe is happening. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are you, beloved and adopted by God – baptized into joy.


1 “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis, and he cured them.” The New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (RSVUE). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%204%3A24&version=NRSVUE

2 “Marakarios,” Louw & Nida 25.119.

3 Matthew Boulton, “Blessing Comes First: SALT’s Commentary for All Saint’s Day,” SALT, 30 October 2023. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/10/26/blessing-comes-first-salts-commentary-for-all-saints-day

4 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” https://coolcalvary.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/on-fairy-stories1.pdf

5 Baptism liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, 299-308.

6 I don’t surf on the sabbath. The waves are best in the morning and I’m always at church then. But last Sunday was an exception. In late afternoon the winds died down and after two full days at the Cathedral I rushed out to Ocean Beach. The surf was pumping. A thousand other people showed up to look at the sunset and formed a crazy traffic jam going through the parking lot. Finally I followed another car past a line of pylons. Throwing on my wetsuit, I grabbed my board. A kind guy on the boardwalk looked right in my eyes and said, “are you late?” “Of course I am the sun is setting in an hour!” The first wave pitched me. But the next ones took me into ecstatic joy. Until I saw the lights of the tow truck right where my car had been in the parking lot.