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Sunday, December 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, December 5
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, December 1
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Sunday, December 8
Decolonize Your Mind!
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).
Read sermon

“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

What is the good news of John the Baptist?

  1. In every conversation lies an implicit promise that we will be informed, entertained, expanded, perhaps even appreciated, loved or saved. But this is not always how things work out. This week I found myself at the most elegant Christmas party of my life. Original paintings by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), James Tissot (1836-1902), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), René Magritte (1898-1967), David Hockney (1937-) and others surrounded the guests in every room. Near the end, feeling exhausted, I took refuge alone on a sofa in the front room when a gracious older man approached and asked if he could sit with me.

He seemed so familiar! We talked as if we had been loosely acquainted for years.[1] And then he told me this story about when he served as a community liaison for the police force and Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader, invited him to Sunday worship.

Jim Jones told him the time to be there and the uniform he should wear. When my friend arrived Jones had two hulking bodyguards with him. He never took off his sun glasses and looked away at the wall as they talked. After the police officer gave his lecture to a thousand people in the congregation he sat enjoying the choir. Although the service wasn’t over and he wanted to stay, the two bodyguards flatly told him it was time to leave. My friend didn’t know what to do but really he had no alternative.

That week someone else who had been there told him what happened after he left. Jim Jones took the stage and told his followers, “Did you see that police officer, he came when I told him to come, wore what I told him to wear and left when I told him to go. Stay with me because I have power.” Within a couple of years Jones murdered 918 people in Guyana. My new friend wonders how many of them were at church with him that day.

  1. So what is the difference between John the Baptist and the cult leader Jim Jones (1931-1978)? At first the two might seem to have a similar image and message. Depictions of John the Baptist in this Cathedral and elsewhere often make him seem angry and unstable. For centuries the most identifying features of John have been his uncombed hair and rough clothes. In the Willets stained glass window John seems to be shouting as a lightning bolt strikes from heaven.

John exclaims, “You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” And we feel condemned. As the axe lies “at the root of the trees” we might even worry that we have the “unquenchable fire” as our destiny (Mt. 3).

This is the second week of the new Christian year. For the next twelve months on Sundays we will read through the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew cares about faithful Jewish people. He constantly tries to show us how Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. The word gospel means “good news” and the point of this art form, of these stories, is not to record ancient history. It is to provoke us to really see.

John the Baptist’s camel hair clothing and leather belt, his life in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey – these identify him with the prophet Elijah and Isaiah’s promise of a time when the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11).

Jim Jones ruled through fear, intimidation and violence – a more extreme version of what we experience in the news from leaders every day. In contrast, John the Baptist offers the opposite. He gives us an inclusive vision of hope for all people. We have the chance to experience lasting joy and he doesn’t want us to squander this opportunity.

Every time a word is used its meaning becomes slightly altered. You can see this when we repeat something that has already been said. Words change meaning. They also wear out over time. “Awesome” used to be a serious word with religious content before it became a meaningless cliché.  The most important word for Matthew in this passage and perhaps even the whole gospel is the Greek word metanoia. It means to change your mind or soul, to be transformed. The worn out Christian word for this is “repentance.”

John the Baptist isn’t scolding us, or imploring us to be good, like some finger-wagging Puritan. John wants to change our entire orientation to the world. We are in chains and John wants to set us free. He wants to free our minds.

Let me point out three signs of hope in his message. First, this is a radically open invitation. He addresses everyone. Each person has dignity and he baptizes Jew and non-Jew alike. With even the temple leaders everyone flocks to the wilderness to see him. He says your race, nationality, religion is not the most important thing about you. Not being related to Abraham will not hold you back when it comes to God.

Second he says that everyone has a chance, because this is not about our identity: who our father was, or our income, status, political party, race, etc. What matters is the fruit that our lives bear. This is simple. Do our actions lead to indifference, violence, manipulation and destruction or to love, healing and wholeness?

Finally, comes the most difficult part to explain. Because identity matters so much to us we feel a stubborn compulsion to misinterpret John’s most frightening metaphor about the wheat and chaff. This is not a metaphor about righteous or evil groups. John does not mean that some people are valuable and should be gathered into the warm barn while others deserve to burn. He is using a metaphor of purification. The fire is a refining fire that burns away impurities. The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) writes that the line between good and evil does not run between various groups of people but through every human heart.[2]

We all have a kernel of goodness, wisdom, bravery and value that deserves to last forever. We also all have imperfections in our character that are fundamentally incompatible with life in God. We know what impurities need to be rooted out of our lives: the hounding negativity, unkindness, anxiety, self-centeredness, indifference, insecurity, greed and fear of those who are different. This chaff exists in every human soul. It includes the bitterness of homophobia, entrenched white supremacy, persistent misogyny.

  1. So instead of that old language we hear from street preachers about repentance, listen this morning as John invites you to decolonize your mind. I have learned so much on this subject from the Kenyan author Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o (1938-). Ngūgī grew up in a Kenyan household with a father, four wives and about twenty-eight children. They spoke Gīkūyū as they worked in the fields and around the home. Before attending school he inhabited a harmonious world held together as all are by stories.

Ngūgī writes that English was more than just a language it became the language. If children spoke their own language in the vicinity of school they were beaten, fined money that they didn’t have or made to carry a metal plate around their necks that said, “I am stupid.”[3]

Ngugi writes that the “real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life.” This comes about through what he calls “the cultural bomb” whose effect is to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.” [4]

Hawaiians had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world during the 1800’s. But then after Americans criminally overthrew the government it became similarly illegal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools. For three generations local people say the “white is right” movement dominated official culture. If you are my age and native Hawaiian you are very likely to have been entirely cut off from your own language, cultural practices and a large part of your own self. Ngūgī says it is like being made to stand outside yourself to understand yourself. Being a Christian today is a little like this. You can’t help but feel such hope for the new generation coming of age in Hawaiian immersion schools.

Here in North America if you are a gay man, you have to struggle so that our culture’s demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes do not remain part of your picture of yourself. This is true of white supremacy and misogyny too. These demonic pictures distort our inner landscapes. They divide us from each other and from God. They are the chaff in every person’s heart that needs to be incinerated by the Holy Spirit so that we can be our truer selves.

In every conversation lies an implicit promise. At the party I gradually recognized that I was talking to Frank Jordan. He served as mayor of San Francisco in the 1990’s when my wife and I first moved here. In that conversation his humility and graciousness showed me he didn’t need to belittle others for the sake of his ego.

About one quarter of the New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul. You might say that his whole message can be boiled down to this statement. In the impenetrable ambiguity of human life when we seem like slaves of the messages that we hear, God offers us freedom from our compulsive preoccupation with human authority.[5]

It is time. It is time for the earth to be full of the knowledge of the Lord. It is time to decolonize our faith and free our minds. And that is the good news of John the Baptist. “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

[1] He told me about growing up south of Market Street, joining the San Francisco Police Department about the Season of the Witch years in the 1970’s when mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by their colleague Dan White.

[2] Matt Boulton, “Change Your Mind: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on Advent Week Two,” SALT, 3 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/3/change-your-mind-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-two

[3] Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Kenya, 1988) 11.

[4] Children growing up in this setting “exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to [themselves]… being made to stand outside of [themselves] to look at [themselves].”  Ibid., 16, 3.

[5] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV).

Sunday, December 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Read sermon

Sermons from the last six months are available below. You can also listen to our sermons as a podcast, Sermons from Grace, wherever you get your podcasts!

 

Sunday, December 8
Decolonize Your Mind!
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).
Read sermon

“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

What is the good news of John the Baptist?

  1. In every conversation lies an implicit promise that we will be informed, entertained, expanded, perhaps even appreciated, loved or saved. But this is not always how things work out. This week I found myself at the most elegant Christmas party of my life. Original paintings by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), James Tissot (1836-1902), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), René Magritte (1898-1967), David Hockney (1937-) and others surrounded the guests in every room. Near the end, feeling exhausted, I took refuge alone on a sofa in the front room when a gracious older man approached and asked if he could sit with me.

He seemed so familiar! We talked as if we had been loosely acquainted for years.[1] And then he told me this story about when he served as a community liaison for the police force and Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader, invited him to Sunday worship.

Jim Jones told him the time to be there and the uniform he should wear. When my friend arrived Jones had two hulking bodyguards with him. He never took off his sun glasses and looked away at the wall as they talked. After the police officer gave his lecture to a thousand people in the congregation he sat enjoying the choir. Although the service wasn’t over and he wanted to stay, the two bodyguards flatly told him it was time to leave. My friend didn’t know what to do but really he had no alternative.

That week someone else who had been there told him what happened after he left. Jim Jones took the stage and told his followers, “Did you see that police officer, he came when I told him to come, wore what I told him to wear and left when I told him to go. Stay with me because I have power.” Within a couple of years Jones murdered 918 people in Guyana. My new friend wonders how many of them were at church with him that day.

  1. So what is the difference between John the Baptist and the cult leader Jim Jones (1931-1978)? At first the two might seem to have a similar image and message. Depictions of John the Baptist in this Cathedral and elsewhere often make him seem angry and unstable. For centuries the most identifying features of John have been his uncombed hair and rough clothes. In the Willets stained glass window John seems to be shouting as a lightning bolt strikes from heaven.

John exclaims, “You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” And we feel condemned. As the axe lies “at the root of the trees” we might even worry that we have the “unquenchable fire” as our destiny (Mt. 3).

This is the second week of the new Christian year. For the next twelve months on Sundays we will read through the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew cares about faithful Jewish people. He constantly tries to show us how Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. The word gospel means “good news” and the point of this art form, of these stories, is not to record ancient history. It is to provoke us to really see.

John the Baptist’s camel hair clothing and leather belt, his life in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey – these identify him with the prophet Elijah and Isaiah’s promise of a time when the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11).

Jim Jones ruled through fear, intimidation and violence – a more extreme version of what we experience in the news from leaders every day. In contrast, John the Baptist offers the opposite. He gives us an inclusive vision of hope for all people. We have the chance to experience lasting joy and he doesn’t want us to squander this opportunity.

Every time a word is used its meaning becomes slightly altered. You can see this when we repeat something that has already been said. Words change meaning. They also wear out over time. “Awesome” used to be a serious word with religious content before it became a meaningless cliché.  The most important word for Matthew in this passage and perhaps even the whole gospel is the Greek word metanoia. It means to change your mind or soul, to be transformed. The worn out Christian word for this is “repentance.”

John the Baptist isn’t scolding us, or imploring us to be good, like some finger-wagging Puritan. John wants to change our entire orientation to the world. We are in chains and John wants to set us free. He wants to free our minds.

Let me point out three signs of hope in his message. First, this is a radically open invitation. He addresses everyone. Each person has dignity and he baptizes Jew and non-Jew alike. With even the temple leaders everyone flocks to the wilderness to see him. He says your race, nationality, religion is not the most important thing about you. Not being related to Abraham will not hold you back when it comes to God.

Second he says that everyone has a chance, because this is not about our identity: who our father was, or our income, status, political party, race, etc. What matters is the fruit that our lives bear. This is simple. Do our actions lead to indifference, violence, manipulation and destruction or to love, healing and wholeness?

Finally, comes the most difficult part to explain. Because identity matters so much to us we feel a stubborn compulsion to misinterpret John’s most frightening metaphor about the wheat and chaff. This is not a metaphor about righteous or evil groups. John does not mean that some people are valuable and should be gathered into the warm barn while others deserve to burn. He is using a metaphor of purification. The fire is a refining fire that burns away impurities. The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) writes that the line between good and evil does not run between various groups of people but through every human heart.[2]

We all have a kernel of goodness, wisdom, bravery and value that deserves to last forever. We also all have imperfections in our character that are fundamentally incompatible with life in God. We know what impurities need to be rooted out of our lives: the hounding negativity, unkindness, anxiety, self-centeredness, indifference, insecurity, greed and fear of those who are different. This chaff exists in every human soul. It includes the bitterness of homophobia, entrenched white supremacy, persistent misogyny.

  1. So instead of that old language we hear from street preachers about repentance, listen this morning as John invites you to decolonize your mind. I have learned so much on this subject from the Kenyan author Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o (1938-). Ngūgī grew up in a Kenyan household with a father, four wives and about twenty-eight children. They spoke Gīkūyū as they worked in the fields and around the home. Before attending school he inhabited a harmonious world held together as all are by stories.

Ngūgī writes that English was more than just a language it became the language. If children spoke their own language in the vicinity of school they were beaten, fined money that they didn’t have or made to carry a metal plate around their necks that said, “I am stupid.”[3]

Ngugi writes that the “real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life.” This comes about through what he calls “the cultural bomb” whose effect is to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.” [4]

Hawaiians had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world during the 1800’s. But then after Americans criminally overthrew the government it became similarly illegal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools. For three generations local people say the “white is right” movement dominated official culture. If you are my age and native Hawaiian you are very likely to have been entirely cut off from your own language, cultural practices and a large part of your own self. Ngūgī says it is like being made to stand outside yourself to understand yourself. Being a Christian today is a little like this. You can’t help but feel such hope for the new generation coming of age in Hawaiian immersion schools.

Here in North America if you are a gay man, you have to struggle so that our culture’s demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes do not remain part of your picture of yourself. This is true of white supremacy and misogyny too. These demonic pictures distort our inner landscapes. They divide us from each other and from God. They are the chaff in every person’s heart that needs to be incinerated by the Holy Spirit so that we can be our truer selves.

In every conversation lies an implicit promise. At the party I gradually recognized that I was talking to Frank Jordan. He served as mayor of San Francisco in the 1990’s when my wife and I first moved here. In that conversation his humility and graciousness showed me he didn’t need to belittle others for the sake of his ego.

About one quarter of the New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul. You might say that his whole message can be boiled down to this statement. In the impenetrable ambiguity of human life when we seem like slaves of the messages that we hear, God offers us freedom from our compulsive preoccupation with human authority.[5]

It is time. It is time for the earth to be full of the knowledge of the Lord. It is time to decolonize our faith and free our minds. And that is the good news of John the Baptist. “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

[1] He told me about growing up south of Market Street, joining the San Francisco Police Department about the Season of the Witch years in the 1970’s when mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by their colleague Dan White.

[2] Matt Boulton, “Change Your Mind: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on Advent Week Two,” SALT, 3 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/3/change-your-mind-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-two

[3] Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Kenya, 1988) 11.

[4] Children growing up in this setting “exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to [themselves]… being made to stand outside of [themselves] to look at [themselves].”  Ibid., 16, 3.

[5] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV).

Sunday, December 1
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
Read sermon
Sunday, November 24
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Mary Carter Greene
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
Read sermon
Sunday, November 17
A Poem that Would Live Forever
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Read sermon

“For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth… Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create” (Isaiah 65).

 

“When I left college and set out to be a poet I thought of nothing but writing a poem that would live forever. That’s just how I phrased it: live forever. It seemed to me the only noble ambition… It was, I suppose, a transparent attempt to replace soul with the self.”[1]

Christian Wiman writes this to explain how poetry abandoned him, about how becoming a Christian required him to give up the fantasy that his words could last forever. What fantasy do you need to leave behind for the sake of faith?

It is hard to believe that it has been less than a month since the devastating fires here because so much happens every day. On Friday for instance, another school shooting took place here in California (Santa Clarita). The president pardoned a list of American men convicted of war crimes. On the same morning former ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch testified before a Congressional impeachment hearing. As she spoke the president derided her on Twitter. She talked about election interference and its effect on foreign policy. She wondered, “How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”[2]

It feels a little like W.B. Yeats’ (1865-1939) poem “The Second Coming.” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. / Surely some revelation is at hand; / surely the Second Coming is at hand.”[3]

  1. Indeed make no mistake the Second Coming is at hand. Our Gospel this morning speaks of three moments, three realizations of this truth. In the 8th century BC the prophet Isaiah wrote to inspire a people who had been held captive in distant Babylon.

He conveys God’s message to them, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered…” (Isa. 65). But “the former things” do “come to mind.” The gladness and rejoicing will come as reversals of the terrible tragedies that have afflicted them. Children dying, sinners never finding atonement, people who after laboring have their houses and fields taken from them – these things will no longer happen. Isaiah conveys God’s promise of a new day of peace when the “wolf and lamb will feed together.”

By the time of Jesus the temple in Jerusalem has been both restored and corrupted. Every Sunday for the last six months we have been following Jesus’ travels in Luke only to arrive at this very point. This is Jesus’ last public sermon. Immediately before this Jesus warns the people to beware of religious leaders who love being honored, who draw attention to themselves through their long prayers. In contrast Jesus admires a poor widow who gave two cents because it was all she had.

Jesus hears people admiring the way the temple is adorned. The Greek word for this is kekosmētai. It combines a sense of both beauty and order like our words cosmos or cosmetic.[4] So imagine someone complimenting the architecture of the United States Capitol and you have a sense for what is happening.

Jesus explains that everything they see will be utterly destroyed. What the disciples and these people so desperately hope for is a warrior king who will overthrow the foreign Roman occupying army and the collaborators in charge of all social institutions. The disciples desperately resist what Jesus is teaching them. He gives them a completely upside down picture of servant leadership in which the greatest is “servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). God is not merely changing who is in charge but overthrowing that whole way of existing. In the realm of God, which is unfolding all around us, love matters more than power.

That is why Jesus warns the people to beware of false leaders who still exalt power over love. He says people will come in his name saying “Eigo eimi” which we translate as “I am he,” but which really means simply “I am.” John’s gospel repeats this all the time. Jesus says, “I am the true vine” (Jn. 15:1), “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12, 9:5). This is an echo of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush. Moses asks who God is and God says “Eigo eimi” “I am.”

False leaders will say the time is at hand. They will say the chairos, the fulfilled time is near. Do not go after them. The telos, which is more than a simple end but a fulfillment,  a completion, “will not follow immediately” (Luke 21).

  1. Jesus’ last public sermon points to a second moment in history. When the region revolted against Roman rule the Emperor Vespasian sent troops to crush the people. After a four month siege in the year 70 AD the Romans (under the future emperor Titus) destroyed the temple and the city. Thousands of people were killed and it seemed like a great culture and religion had been utterly destroyed. Biblical scholars are not exactly sure when Luke composed this gospel but they believe it might have been some time around these events.[5]

In the first and second centuries it was illegal to be a Christian. Because we inhabit a different age and culture we have difficulty imagining a world in which politics and religion were so thoroughly intermixed. Christians refused to make the required sacrifice to the Roman emperor and this was regarded as a grave political crime. When things went wrong in society like earthquakes, wars, plagues, famines and signs in the heavens it was common to persecute the Christians.[6]

The same emperor Vespasian built a Roman coliseum that seated 50,000 people. Killing Christians in gruesome ways was entertainment in that society. They made no distinction between capital punishment and a sacrifice to the gods. We have a written account of the details around the execution of Perpetua, Felicitas and their companions in the year 203 AD. Perpetua was a twenty-two year old noblewoman and was nursing her infant in prison before being killed in the amphitheater by wild animals and the sword.[7]

And to the people of this moment Jesus speaks frankly about the way they will be arrested (paradidomi) and persecuted, brought before kings and governors for his name’s sake (Lk. 21). Jesus says to them. This will be a time for you to bear testimony (marturion). To people in the most extreme circumstance Jesus has such a simple message. Don’t agonize over preparing what you will say, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” You will be betrayed by those who are supposed to love you, “[b]ut not a hair of your head will perish.”

  1. The final moment the gospel speaks to is of course our own. In this time of political turmoil it is hard for us to see past the headlines. Everywhere so many prominent leaders violate accepted conventions concerning power and civility, and as the internet amplifies the most extreme voices, we cannot help but suffer from a kind of outrage fatigue.

And meanwhile we face the most serious threat in recorded history. Modern society may make the planet uninhabitable for humans and countless other species. In the words of a recent commentator we have radically underestimated the effects of our actions. Twenty-five years ago it would have been inconceivable to us that within such a short time, “a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic, produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin.”[8] This is the most important news from summer. This is the story of our generation.

I want to suggest two small things that you might do as servant leaders to help. First, in all our conversations we need to be honest about this reality. This week an acquaintance was talking about fires that were “just normal not from climate change or anything.” I just let this go instead of clarifying what she meant by this comment. At your Thanksgiving dinner tables I encourage you to let a lot go – but not this. Our generation has a unique responsibility in all human history.

Second, when you work alone it is hard to be effective and easy to become discouraged. At Grace Cathedral everybody counts. Volunteer, make a pledge, join a group or form one. Become a teacher, an usher, an acolyte or a docent. Exercise leadership and worship here because this is part of how God is saving the world. We are so much stronger together than we are as individuals. And the very poorest and most ignored person here may make the offering that will save us.

On this ingathering Sunday the world will see in us the opposite of Yeats’ poem. At Grace Cathedral the center does hold, things that fell apart are being repaired, innocence is not drowned but nurtured. The best have conviction and the worst find forgiveness for their sins.

Although it may seem strange in this world of wars and rumors of wars, of persecutions and betrayals, the second coming is incredibly good news to us. God has written a poem that will live forever. It is not a political party, or a system of government, or even a religion. It is not even this world.

The poem is you. And you will not perish. Leave your fantasies behind because we have reason for a far greater hope. God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. Be glad and rejoice forever.

 

[1] Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2018) 6-7.

[2] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Ex-Envoy to Ukraine ‘Devastated’ as Trump Vilified Her,” The New York Times, 15 November 2019. The next day (Saturday) we heard that the Chinese government could have sent as many as one million people into internment camps in just the last few years. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

[3] The rest of W.B. Yeats’ poem:

“The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.” https://poets.org/poem/second-coming

[4] keko/smhtai

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus and, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE)

[6] In about the year 197 the North African Tertullian wrote, “If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is a famine, if there is a plague, the cry is at once, ‘The Christians to the lion…” Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 19.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passion_of_Saint_Perpetua,_Saint_Felicitas,_and_their_Companions

[8] Eugene Linden, “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong,” The New York Times, 8 November 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/08/opinion/sunday/science-climate-change.html

Sunday, November 10
Service of Remembrance Sermon
Preacher: Luc Ferier
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Homily

Luc Ferier, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, 10 November 2019

When I created The Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation six years ago, I never could have imagined to be in a place like this in the United States of America; not even a few months ago, when I was invited to give a presentation at Trinity Episcopal Church in Sonoma.  When I provided the title of that speech last September—“Humanity does not Abandon Mankind to Darkness”—I had only the First World War in mind.

But when I arrived from London a few weeks ago, I realized that this title was also a perfect summary of the unbelievable solidarity exhibited here in California during the recent wildfire disasters.  I saw people in Sonoma, Petaluma and other small villages opening their homes to refugees who were forced to evacuate.  All this was done spontaneously and without any personal gain.

Humanity in California, indeed, does not abandon mankind to darkness.

Speaking today at this important commemorative event, before people who truly represent the core values of being humane, is therefore an incredible honour.

The last six years of research, discovering thousands of unknown personal documents from soldiers of all religious beliefs and none in the First World War, has taught me that I still know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.  This ignorance makes me very humble.

And it is with this humility, as a grandchild of a modest World War 1 soldier, that I salute the American people for the enormous sacrifices they made, one hundred years ago, in a war not of their making.

The First Wold War was one of the greatest of human catastrophes, with more than fifty million dead and wounded worldwide and another fifty million victims of the ensuing deadly influenza epidemic.

Many of your ancestors joined my Belgian grandfather in battle in 1917.  They were among the 4.7 million American soldiers who paid a heavy price: 116,000 deadly casualties in a single year.

But my grandfather was also joined by at least four million Muslims.  Not only from the former British and French colonies but also from Russia and China. And, yes, there were also Muslims from Canada and the United States who answered the call to arms.  At least five thousand American Muslims enlisted.  And all of them served with honour, loyalty and dignity.

The words “Islam” and “Muslim” are politically loaded terms, provoking reactions depending on where in the world you are. This is nothing new: other religious and cultural communities have expressed similar sentiments. It appears that society always needs to have a scapegoat.  However, there are at least two sides to every coin.  While on one side, discrimination, hate and antagonism are brewing; on the other, friendship, love, respect and solidarity can be found.

My research is focused on the impact of war on the individuals who served in World War One, and I discovered the beauty of humanity when and where you would least expect to find it.

I learned that for these millions of soldiers in the trenches, religion, colour, political conviction and language were not a real issue.  The only thing they wanted to know was: “Are you with me? Will you watch my back? Will you not leave me behind?”

Being brothers in arms was the only way to survive and make it back home.

Among the personal diaries I found are numerous heart-warming accounts of Muslim, Christian and Jewish soldiers fighting united, side-by-side, sharing their experiences and accommodating each other’s culture, music, gastronomy and religious practices, despite the difficult conditions in the trenches.

Furthermore, chaplains, priests, rabbis and imams went out of their way to learn Arabic, Hebrew, English and French in order to accommodate religious burials of the dead on the battlefront.

If soldiers, then, could accept and accommodate each other in the trenches during wartime, what’s stopping us from doing the same today?

I also discovered that these men were not only fighting a physical war in a gruesome environment, they were also engaged in another fierce battle, a battle we rarely talk about—a fight for their soul.

They spent weeks and months in filthy trenches, in the freezing cold or burning sun.  They were wounded. They had lost their friends and family. They had seen atrocities. They had been promised the war would only last a month, but they were still fighting three or four years later and still had not advanced a mile. They had been engaged in battles losing sometimes more than 30,000 men in one day—30,000 men in one day—ending up in the same trench they had left at dawn.  No victory.

And then, in the middle of another senseless battle, some of the enemy in front of them surrenders. They have a few prisoners of war!  This is the moment which many of these soldiers—of all religions—write about in their letters. They pray for strength, they pray for guidance, because they know…they know that Evil NOT only comes to us when we are weak.  Evil, and I mean real Evil, also comes to us when we are strong—especially when we are strong!—when we have power, when we can take revenge, when we can decide on life and death,  when we have the ability to choose how much pain we will inflict, to be merciful or not.

That’s when Evil reaches out to us. That’s when these Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu soldiers knew their faith was in grave danger.

This is why we must pray for every soldier so that they will have the strength, when evil reaches out to them in combat, to make the right decision.

And this is why we must do more to support the veterans who have encountered that horrible moment, because we were not there with them to give them the backup they needed.

Religion is about so much more than just believing in something unseen. It is a synergy of mind, body and spirit that can empower an individual to overcome any kind of adversity. Wars are fought in the name of religion, which is so stupid because religion fights in the name of humanity.

We really do need to learn from our shared history.

We need to learn from these World One heroes—of all faiths and none—that these men and women here with us today, in front of me, and their brothers and sisters in arms  all around the United States and abroad, are amazing human beings who deserve our greatest respect not only for putting their lives at stake for us, but also their very souls.

If we can do this, then—and only then—will the sacrifice of those millions of World War One soldiers not have been in vain.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 10
Jesus and the Master Narrative
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Lk. 20).

  1. “I’m not afraid of getting older. I’m afraid of looking older.” This week Ali Drucker wrote this in a trending New York Times article entitled “If Keanu Reeves’s Date Can Embrace Looking Her Age, I Can Too.” She commends the actor for dating someone who is only nine years younger than he is, because for most famous men, women seem to have a “shelf life just shy of twenty-five years.”[1]

In a conversation this week one of my most striking-looking and closest friends waved a hand around her face and said, “This won’t last forever.” She went on to explain that soon she will not be beautiful and no one will want to have her and she will be alone.

I wanted to interrupt and say, “you are one of the most beautiful people I know and it comes from your inner gorgeousness! The best part of you is eternal.” But words like this seem empty when the world around us seems to run according to completely different rules.

  1. The social conventions of Jesus’ time make it hard for us to understand his confrontation with the Sadducees. But how we see the world matters so much and Jesus offers us a story about our self that leads to what John calls “abundant life.” Jesus shows us how to experience God’s love and joy at the heart of everything.

Today’s gospel happens at a time of excruciating tension and danger (Lk. 19). Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem with huge crowds praising God and cheering him. When Jesus sees the city he weeps because he knows it will be destroyed. He enters the temple and drives out the people who are selling things there. Then he settles into a routine of teaching in the temple every day. The religious leaders are looking for a way to kill him but are restrained because as Luke writes, “the people were spellbound by what they heard” (Lk. 19).

The Sadducees are a religious sect with ties to the temple leadership. They differ from the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples in two ways. First, they don’t believe in a coming age of resurrection. Second, they only accept the first five books of the Bible as authoritative and regard these as excluding the possibility of resurrection. Let me be clear they are not there to discover the truth, they are trying to entrap Jesus. They want to get him to say something that will offend the crowds. They want to trip him up, to embarrass him so that everyone will see that he isn’t as clever as they first thought.[2]

Not only does Jesus avoid being trapped but each time he speaks so profoundly that it only deepens the admiration of those who hear him. The Sadducees argue that the whole idea of resurrection is absurd and impossible. To do this they refer to an ancient practice called “levirate marriage” which takes its name from the Hebrew word levir which means “brother-in-law.”

The idea is simple. If a man dies childless, his brother will marry his widow in order to have children who will then carry on his name and look after the widow when she is old. In our time we are likely to feel a sense of horror that this woman is treated merely like a man’s property. This is true. But it is also a compassionate strategy for addressing old age and death. The goal is to leave the widow with children who will one day care for her.

So to prove the foolishness of resurrection the Sadducees present Jesus with a hypothetical example. Suppose a woman’s husband dies and she marries his brother, but he dies and so on through a family of seven brothers. They ask Jesus, “In the resurrection… whose wife will the woman be” (Lk. 20)? Although it seems like there is no way to win Jesus immediately answers.

Jesus says that their error comes out of assuming that the cultural conventions and practices of our times will hold in the age of resurrection. He goes on, “in that age the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore because they are like angels and are children of God” (Lk. 20). Jesus knows that marriage practices are ways of addressing old age and death. Since there is no old age or death in the resurrection we don’t need these cultural practices.

The religious leaders asked whose wife she will be and Jesus answers that she will not be anyone’s wife. She will be utterly herself, “a child of God,” “a child of the resurrection.” If this were not enough Jesus goes on to cite one of the Books of Moses that the Sadducees find authoritative.

Jesus says that at the burning bush God says to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He does not say I was their God. Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Lk. 20). Hearing this the scribes can only say, “Teacher you have spoken well” because they are afraid to ask another question.

Jesus does something far more brilliant than we recognize at first. The Sadducees use an ancient marriage practice to criticize the idea of resurrection. Jesus on the other hand uses life in God, or the age of resurrection, to criticize human institutions like marriage. This widow is not merely the object of an argument. Neither does she enter the next age as someone’s property or as a wife. Her marriage status will no longer define her because she will be a child of God, like an angel.

When Jesus talks about the coming age. He’s not referring merely to something that happens to us after we die. God’s kingdom has come near. It is already happening. It is unfolding. We are already beginning to realize the dignity, freedom, joy and respect that should belong to every child of God. All human conventions and institutions that undermine human dignity, no matter how cruel or persistent, are passing away through the power of Christ.

  1. Our Forum guest today is the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. He grew up not far from our old house in Mountain View and his memoir moved me deeply. We are talking about constraining institutions, conventions and practices. Nothing seems more arbitrary than his predicament as an undocumented citizen. He didn’t ask to be brought here. It’s almost all he has ever known. He has dedicated himself to studying our shared civic life and writing thoughtfully about it. He walks around with a copy of the Bill of Rights. And yet there is no path, or process for him to become a citizen. And politicians are leading other Americans to despise him because he has no papers.

The same public library system had an immense influence on both of our lives. Vargas writes about coming across a videotaped interview between Bill Moyers and the novelist Toni Morrison (1931-2019). It had a profound effect on Vargas. The two celebrities are talking about the pressures on one of her characters. Morrison says she surrendered to “the master narrative” and goes on to explain what she means.

“The master narrative (is) the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness, what is contempt. She got it from her family… school… movies, she got it everywhere.” Moyers seems confused so Morrison explains further, “It’s white male life. The master narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority over everybody else. The master fiction. History.  It has a certain point of view. So, when these little girls see that the most prized gift that they can get at Christmastime is this little white doll, that’s the master narrative speaking. “This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it.”[3]

Despite the power of the master narrative, and the conventions that support it, through Christ we see signs of new life breaking into this age. The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that, “In [our] essence, [our] innermost being, [our] heart we are only what we are gladly.”[4] He points out that we have an experience of what he calls “being in encounter.” We have relationships which are not about power or seeking our own self-interest.

I speak from personal experience in married life when I affirm his claim that there is a kind of mutual joy that we find in the existence of another. Barth puts these feelings into words writing, “I have waited for Thee. I sought Thee before Thou didst encounter me. I had Thee in view even before I knew thee. The encounter with Thee is not, therefore, the encounter with something strange which disturbs me, but with a counterpart which I have lacked and without which I would be empty and futile.” Barth calls this the unfathomable, unexpressible secret of humanity.

What scares you? Do you worry about looking older – you are a child of the resurrection. Are you afraid of being deported – no one can take you away from God because you are like the angels and have citizenship in heaven. Are you afraid of being alone – you are a child of God. Do not let the master narrative hide what is really beautiful. You are exquisite. God will always hold you and all you love just as God still embraces Abraham and Sarah. God is God not of the dead but of the living!

 

[1] Ali Drucker, “If Keanu Reeves’s Date Can Embrace Looking Her Age, I Can Too,” The New York Times, 6 November 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/opinion/keanu-reeves-alexandra-grant.html

[2] So much of this sermon comes from Matt Boulton, “What’s Resurrection For? SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Twenty-Second Week After Pentecost,” 5 November 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/11/5/whats-resurrection-for-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-twenty-second-week-after-pentecost

[3] Jose Antonio Vargas, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen (NY: HarperCollins, 2018) 76-7.

[4] See Karl Barth Church Dogmatics Index pgs. 395-6. Also, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2: The Doctrine of Creation tr. H Knight, G.W. Bromiley, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller (NY: T & T Clark, 1960) 267, 270, 269.

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