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Thursday, November 14
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, November 10
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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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.

Sunday, November 3
Reality Beyond this Dream
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“See I am making all things new” (Revelation 21).

As we dream we usually have some awareness of the real world around us. Sometimes that reality even enters into our dream. But while we sleep, the dream is the only way for us to interpret what our senses communicate. So the windchimes around the corner become instead tolling bells in a distant tower. We smell Sonoma County wildfires but in the dream the smoke comes from an immense cauldron of fire. The swoosh of the street cleaning truck becomes a driving rain sweeping through a grassy valley. And the person we love, trying to wake us, at first seems to be only the voice of a distant stranger.1

In the dream we cannot perceive these things as they are. “For while those who have awakened know what it is to sleep, those who are asleep do not remember what it is to be awake.”2 This morning I am proposing that this may be our situation too. We all may be to some extent or another asleep. There may be different levels of wakefulness that we are not even aware of most of the time.

Often when I ask someone these days how they are doing, they reply and I can’t help but think, “Is that the way things really are or is that just something you read on the internet?” Is what happens on the internet really real? I say this in a room full of people who recently have been more awake than almost anyone else, our new parents.

My children came into the world in the same hospital where my brother and I were born. At that moment I felt an oceanic sense of vulnerability and responsibility. But I also felt the most intense feeling of gratefulness and joy. I remember sitting in our apartment with the soft late afternoon sun shining on us and looking into my son’s eyes and spontaneously whispering, “What is God like? Tell me before you forget.”

I felt this same kind of wakefulness during the AIDS crisis when I served a small urban church in Boston Massachusetts. It felt like we had a funeral every other week. Everything seemed horrifyingly backwards. Old people seemed like they were going to live forever. And young, beautiful, loving, talented people were dying agonizing deaths shunned by the very families that should have loved them most. Every day shattered our illusions – the illusions that we would live forever, that our relations to each other are casual or superficial, that we do not at the deepest level desperately need each other.

With the music, the smell of baked bread and incense, these vast arches and light filtered through thousands of shards of stained glass, almost everyone who arrives at Grace Cathedral steps into a deeper reality. A longing for this more awakened state of being in some way or other brought all of us here today.

The two most famous New Testament sisters are Martha and Mary. At every point they approach Jesus in a different way. Martha works hard, she concentrates on practical matters. She is always thinking about how everyone will get fed, how the work will get done, but she is also judgmental. She resents her sister for just sitting and listening to Jesus. And she confronts Jesus about this. At this point Jesus frustrates many of us and tells Martha she needs to be more like her sister (Lk. 10).

Mary on the other hand is so obviously drawn by deep love. She just wants to be with Jesus, to really pay attention. She has such faith that when her brother dies, she kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, “’Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus sees her crying and recognizes the depth of her love he breaks down and weeps (Jn. 11). All of us are both Martha and Mary. We are practically going about the business of the world in the way Martha is, but we also have intimations of a deeper reality like Mary.

Through baptism on All Saint’s Day we become part of the Body of Christ stretching back to the beginning and out to the end. Through baptism we make a commitment to living more completely in the deeper reality of God. Baptism is a like note that reminds us that we are part of something essential and eternal. It is like a thread that takes us back through the maze into the presence of the holy.

Our cathedral theme is “the Year of the Body” and I want to talk briefly about the way our bodies have a role in helping us to be more awake, to live in a deeper, truer reality. Baptism is one part of how we teach our children to honor and reverence their bodies.

Christianity came into existence during a time when people’s bodies could be bought and sold, when it was a matter of sport to watch Christians torn apart by animals in the Coliseum, when the father in a family could legally kill anyone in his household. Back then philosophers talked about the body as a kind of prison for the soul. In contrast to that world Christians believed that bodies are not just vulnerable, but also indispensable and holy. They believed that God comes to us in a real person with a real body. They believed in the resurrection of the body.

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Being a follower of Jesus is the heart of our identity. It matters more than our gender, class, ethnicity, status, where we come from or who we think our people are. Our bodies are part of what make us equal.

As parents we communicate our values about the body through “table life.” What happens at your dining table will have a greater effect on your children’s life than almost anything else. At the table they will enjoy the gift of good food, and be in a place where everyone’s voice is of equal importance. At the table children learn that they do not just belong to the family but have responsibility to the wider world. It should be a place that can welcome unexpected guests.

At the table children will learn that joy is a skill that depends to a great extent on where we put our attention. Psychologists point out three factors that have the greatest influence on happiness. First, the ability to reframe situations more positively, second, our ability to experience gratitude, and finally our decision to be kind and generous to others.3 Saying a prayer before meals may be one of the simplest things you can do to help your children lead a life of joy. The German mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) says, “if the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it is sufficient.”4

The twentieth century French intellectual Simone Weil (1909-1943) writes that only those who have known joy and been open to suffering can, “hear the universe as the vibration of the word of God.”5 Hearing this will change everything for you.

I want to conclude with a poem and a story that point the way to what it feels like to be awakened to what is real and to God. Mark Doty wrote poems about the illness and death of his partner Wally Roberts from AIDS. This poem is called “Michael’s Dream.”

“Michael writes to tell me his dream: / I was helping Randy out of bed, / supporting him on one side / with another friend on the other, // and as we stood him up, he stepped out / of the body I was holding and became / a shining body, brilliant light / held in the form I first knew him in. // This is what I imagine will happen, / the spirit’s release. Michael, / when we support our friends, / one of us on either side, our arms // under the man or woman’s arms, / what is it we’re holding? Vessel, / shadow, hurrying light? All those years / I made love to a man without thinking /

“how little his body had to do with me; / now diminished, he’s never been so plainly himself – remote and unguarded, / an otherness I can’t know / the first thing about… // In the dream Randy’s leaping into the future, and still here; Michael’s holding him / and

releasing at once. Just as Steve’s / holding Jerry, though he’s already gone, / Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding / her John, gone… and I’m holding Wally, who’s going. / Where isn’t the question, / though we think it is; / we don’t even know where the living are, //

“in this raddled and unraveling “here.” / What is the body? Rain on a window, / a clear movement over whose gaze? / Husk, leaf, little boat of paper / and wood to mark the speed of the stream? / Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally / and John: lucky we don’t have to know / what something is in order to hold it.”

Although in clearer moments we see the reality that our body is a gift from God we are ambivalent about our body. Sometimes we feel like we have a body. Other times it seems like we are a body. But at all times this body allows us to reach out and help each other.6

Rabbi David Wolpe tells a story about his grandfather’s early death and his father’s loneliness as he tried to come to terms with it as an only child at the age of eleven. It was the practice for a son to walk to the synagogue early every morning for a year after the death for prayers and the boy did this. After the first week he noticed Mr. Einstein, the synagogue’s ritual director, walking past his home every day just as he was leaving.

Mr. Einstein was getting old and he said, “Your home is on the way to the synagogue and I thought it might be fun to have some company.” And for a year through the New England seasons they walked and talked about life and the boy was not so alone.

Wolpe’s dad grew up, married and when his oldest son was born he called Mr. Einstein to ask if he’d like to meet his new family. Mr. Einstein agreed but since he was in his nineties he invited the family to come see him.”

Wolpe’s father writes about that visit. “The journey was long and complicated. His home, by car, was fully twenty minutes away. I drove in tears as I realized what he had done. He had walked an hour to my home so that I would not have to be alone each morning… By the simplest of gestures, the act of caring, he took a frightened child and he led him with confidence and with faith back into life.”7

All the readings today are about death and the hidden truth that God is making all things new. The deepest reality that we are awakening to is that God loves you so very much. Like Mr. Einstein, God is walking with you every day. We sleep in the illusion that we are separated from each other, from the people who

have gone before us and from God. You who have held a child, you who have cared for someone who is dying, you who experience the beauty of this cathedral – remember what it is like to be awake!

 

 

1 David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) 11-12.

2 Ibid., 292.

3 Citing research from Sonja Lyubomirsky. Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (NY :Avery, 2016), 48-9

4 David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008) 1.

5 Stephanie Paulsell, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2003) 174-5.

6 Ibid., 19-21.

7 David J. Wolpe, Why Faith Matters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008) 96-7

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, January 27
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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