Sermons For These Times
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
What will you do with this wonderful, mysterious life that you have been given?
Imagine that you were born in Africa 300,000 years ago and you experienced the whole life of the very first human being ever born. Then immediately afterwards you were to live the full life of the second human being.[i] And then every human being since then, all the way to the baby being born as I complete this sentence. Your life would consist of all these “lifetimes, lived consecutively.”[ii]
Your experience would be very different from the history books. Famous people like the Buddha, Confucius, Mary (the mother of Jesus), Isaac Newton and Jane Austen would account for only an infinitesimal part of your experience. Most of your life would consist of ordinary social interactions. It would include a lot of worrying, working and social conflict over status and inclusion. You would feel a great deal of awe and wonder too.
This life would last for four trillion years. A tenth of that time you would be a hunter-gatherer. For 60% you would be in a farming family. You would spend 20% of your time raising children, 20% growing food. 2% of your time would be dedicated to religious ritual like this. For 1% of your life you would have malaria or small pox. You would spend 1.5 billion years engaged in sex and 250 million years giving birth. You would experience terrible suffering, war and brutality. For 10% of the time you would own other human beings and another 10% you would be enslaved yourself.
This brings us to our very unique circumstances as modern people. Substantial population growth means that a third of your life would have occurred after the year 1200 AD and a quarter of it after 1750. As a result during many of your years you would experience massive social changes around the industrial revolution, modern colonialism, the emergence of democracy, capitalism, contemporary science, civil rights movements, etc.
You would spend 150 years in outer space. For one week you would walk on the moon. Fifteen percent of your experience would be of people who are alive today. William MacAskill uses this thought experiment to give us an insight into human nature and a broader perspective of our place in the world. But he also does it to alert us to a pressing but often overlooked issue, our responsibility for the people of the future.
He points out that if human beings last as long as the average mammalian species (which is 1 million years) and even at a population of a tenth of our current size then 99.5 percent of human life would be ahead of us. It seems likely that the vast, vast, vast majority of all the people who will ever live have not even been born yet. And we have a responsibility to them. We are the ancient ones. We are the forebears choosing a course that will bring suffering or joy to the trillions of people who follow us.
Jesus presents us with another thought experiment that he hopes will change our vision and how we live. The religious leaders, who Luke notes are “lovers of money,” hear Jesus’ parable from last week about the unrighteous manager and “ridicule him” (Lk. 16:14). Jesus responds saying, “God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination to God.”Then he tells a story that we hardly ever hear at Grace Cathedral and that I have not preached about for twenty-one years. Luke the author of this Gospel cares intensely about poverty and generosity. In his story Jesus is born poor in a barn, Mary in the Magnificat announces that God fills the hungry with good things, there are scores of examples of Jesus bringing good news to the poor, the earliest church shares all things in common.
This morning Jesus does not give us a philosophical dissertation on the afterlife. Like the image of a 4 trillion year lifetime, the point of this picture is to wake us up, so that we can see the world as it really is. A rich man in purple delights in his sensuality and his feasts.[iii] At his gate, Lazarus longs for leftovers, as the dogs lick his sores. His name el-Azar means “God has helped.” We wonder if the rich man even knows his name.
The two die and the rich man sees Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. He calls out “Father Abraham” eleēson, “have mercy on me.” Send Lazarus to cool my tongue. Abraham points out the great chasm separating the two realms. Then the rich man tells Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five siblings. Abraham concludes the story saying that if the rich man’s siblings do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Lk. 16).
- One thing I love about this story is that for Jesus, the poor man has a name – Lazarus. And what strikes me with such force is that over his life this rich man has created such an absolute barrier between Lazarus and himself that even after death, when everything should be clear, he cannot see his humanity. He looks at Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and he cannot recognize him as anything other than his inferior, as someone who exists to serve him.
Sharing what we have may be very difficult. But really seeing the humanity and dignity of the people we encounter, that might be even harder. Every time I walk through the Tenderloin wearing my clerical collar and saying hi to the people I encounter, I am surprised by the openness and respect of the people in this city who have the least. In that setting people regard the collar as a sign that because of Jesus I might be more ready to see their dignity. In their eyes I see the hope that they might be meeting someone who understands them.
- Earlier in the Book of Luke, John the Baptist warns the people who come out to the desert, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’” (Lk. 3). For Luke, what matters is not who your people are, or what tribe you belong to, it is about what you do.
In the third century Augustine understood this. The thirty year old Augustine was experiencing every form of success. He was wildly popular and successful. He had a beautiful concubine, a wonderful son, a prestigious professorship, a bright political career and the prospects of great wealth through a strategic marriage. But Augustine felt miserable. He writes, “I panted for honors, for money, for marriage.”[iv] And yet despite getting everything he wanted he felt profoundly empty.
One day Augustine was feeling career pressure (he had to lie about the virtues of the emperor in a public speech). He noticed a very poor man who was drunk and laughing. Augustine envied his light heartedness. If someone asked if he would rather be under great stress or happy like this man, he would rather be like this man. But if someone asked if he would rather be the beggar or himself he would choose himself. He could not let go of the honors that were making him miserable.
Eventually Augustine began to see that faith not as a mental state of believing but a changed life based on trusting God. Something in him opened and he became capable of receiving great joy.
- The last thing I want to point out about this story is that according to Luke, Moses and the prophets are enough. Jesus has not come to add something to the Jewish faith or to replace it with something new. He has called our attention to the truths we already know about loving God and each other. We see these in Moses and the Prophets and in other religions, other forms of piety.
This week at Joan Silva’s funeral I mentioned that in this church we teach our children that prophets are people who are so close to God and God is so close to them that they know what to do. For me, the Persian mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) is a prophet. He writes, “Let the beauty we love be what we do / There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”[v]
Elsewhere Rumi writes, “Whatever you can think is perishable. / That which enters no thought, that’s God!”[vi] I see in Rumi the deep love of God that I also experience in Jesus. Rumi longs for God and writes,
“When I seek peace, he is / the kindly intercessor, / And when I go to war, / the dagger, that is he; / And when I come to meetings, / he is the wine and the sweetmeat. / And when I come to gardens, / the fragrance, that is he. / When I go to the mines, deep / he is the ruby there, / When I delve in the ocean, / the precious pearl is he. / When I come to the desert, / he is a garden there. / When I go to the heaven, / the brilliant star is he… / And when I write a letter / to my beloved friends, / The paper and the inkwell, / the ink, the pen is he. / And when I write a poem / and seek a rhyming word – / The one who spreads the rhymes out / within my thought, is he!”[vii]
We are the ancient ones. We are the forebears choosing a course that will bring suffering or joy to the trillions of people who follow us. Faith is the gift which sees every person’s dignity. Faith is the way we act, how we respond to God’s love. Faith is the question: What will you do with this wonderful, mysterious life that you have been given?
[ii] William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future (NY: Basic Books, 2022) 3.
[iii] eujfraino/menoß This word means to rejoice, cheer and is used for the rich fool in Luke 12:19. “And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
[iv] 17 Pent (9-30-01) 21C. Augustine, Confessions. Tr. Rex Warner (NY: Mentor-Omega, 1963) 119f.
[v] Jalaluddin Rumi tr. Coleman Barks, Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) 123.
[vi] Annemarie Schimmel, I Am Wind You Are Fire: The Life and Work of Rumi (Boston: Shambhala, 1992) 73.
[vii] Ibid., 44-5.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
I have been dwelling on Jesus’ parable about the fired manager over the last few months. In an instant the shock of losing everything seizes him. A sense of inadequacy, worthlessness and humiliation confronts us when we do not have enough to provide for those we love. This terror may be completely foreign to you, it may have come and gone in different stages of your life – or you may be in the grips of this fear now and have no idea how to ever escape from it.
We often talk about inequality without spelling out what it really means. In our society we tolerate a greater amount of insecurity and fear than in other advanced democracies. Not having adequate healthcare, housing, food, education and leisure time creates terrible and unnecessary suffering for millions. In America racism has always been part of this story. Treating some people as less than fully human has made us callous to the pain of others.
People often ask me a simple question that I never answer straightforwardly. “Why do your parents live in Florida?” The reason quite simply is that during the last years of his employment a younger woman was being abused by my father’s boss. My dad publicly stood up for her and as a result lost his job and the pension benefits that he desperately needed in his retirement. For every remaining year of his life he will continue to pay a substantial price for acting righteously. Their small Florida town is a cheap place to live.
Jesus’ story is similarly about a turning point in someone’s life. It is about a man forced to look back at his past as he faces an uncertain future. A manager caught squandering his boss’ wealth gets fired. Afraid that he will fall into poverty, he acts quickly. Before the owner can get the word out, the manager cancels his clients’ debts in the hope that they may one day help him.
It seems strange but the owner regards this behavior as clever. Jesus agrees. He says, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk. 16). Jesus goes on, “I tell you make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”
Augustine, the fourth century African saint writes, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.” We agree and immediately set to work explaining it, justifying it, domesticating Jesus so that he won’t interrupt our life. But Jesus will not sit down and be silent.
Perhaps we feel offended, because Jesus says, “be like that” manager when we believe we are better than that. If we were laid off, we would not walk out with the office furniture, or give away company property to win friends cheaply. We long for a simple explanation of this story that will not complicate our life. Jesus however does not care about this. He passionately desires that we will return to God.
Scholars want the same kind of simple answer that we do. They explain the story away. Some call it hyperbole, a kind of exaggeration that Jesus uses to get our attention. Others suggest that the owner is a first century crime boss and that this manager robs the rich to give to the poor. One scholar writes that the steward gives away his regular commission.[i]
Each of these explanations might make us feel more comfortable, but I believe that Jesus is challenging us. Three things particularly stand out about his words this morning. Jesus speaks about how to treat money and the future.
- Jesus talks about money more than you and I do. I read somewhere that in the gospel of Luke one out of every seven of Jesus’ sayings has to do with money. Jesus seems consistently more concerned about it than about friendship, sex, marriage, politics, government, war, family values, truthfulness or church. Jesus more wisely than most of us recognizes the power of money. I wonder if people who believe only in material things, but do not believe in God, talk more about money that spiritual people.
Jesus would say that both are wrong, both materialists and Christians underestimate the effect that money has on our soul. Materialists fail to recognize the existence of the ultimate. Christians fail to see how money is related to it. Jesus says some radical things about money. He understands the temptation to live for accumulating money and the things that it can buy.
With regard to the gospel and money, there is one thing I am sure of and one that I am not. I’m not certain about this part, but it seems to me that money in the Gospel of Luke is always tainted. Luke calls it mammon. This word includes everything that you own that has cash value. There is something already corrupt about mammon. We all tell stories to justify why we have money and someone else does not. We all may be equal in God’s eyes, but money substantiates the difference between a person with power and a person without it.
Part of me wants to resist this, to believe that money is simply neutral, that its goodness depends only on what we spend it on. But I think Luke’s point is that this view assumes that money has no history before we possess it. In our culture we have so many self-serving stories that justify our wealth. We often associate it with moral virtue (as if it mostly came from our hard work, intelligence, education, competence, etc.). By warning us about money, Luke reminds us of the truth. All we have and all we own and all we are comes from God.
This is not at all to say that we should try to be poor. Money can solve problems. The vast majority of problems could be resolved by a particular amount of money. Unfortunately the solutions that money buys never last. Our problems traced back to their roots are ultimately spiritual problems.
- This brings me to the second point about money, the thing that I am more sure about. I believe that money connects the spiritual and the material. I know it is radical, but with Jesus, I am convinced that we can use our money to genuinely please God. Whether money is inevitably tainted as I believe Luke claims, or if it is neutral as my economics professors believed, money makes ministry possible. We can do God’s work with money. We can make an amazing difference in the lives of the poor, the sick, the lonely and the spiritually destitute through our use of money.[ii]
True wealth comes not from what we receive or own but from what we give away. Grace Cathedral with its beauty, its history as one of the oldest churches in Western America may seem as close to permanent as you can get in this world of change.
But this is a fragile institution. Every year a large number of people have to give a large amount of money in order for us to keep going. There are not many places that will make better use of your gift. Organized together we visit the sick, the lonely and the elderly. We teach children about God and introduce them to adults who they can depend on. God changes lives here. Maybe your money is honest, maybe it’s not, but it does do God’s work at Grace Cathedral.
- The final thing that I believe Jesus says to us through this story has to do with time. I think faith can make some people passive. They reason that since God has all the power, what they do doesn’t matter. Jesus emphasizes that this is a parable about a turning point. The manager feels the same kind of pressure that we feel here today. But instead of responding with nostalgia for a more stable past, or by wallowing in his present misery, the manager acts decisively. Jesus applauds this.[iii]
The American poet Marie Howe wrote a poem about her brother dying of AIDS called “The Last Time.”[iv] “The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant / … he leaned forward // and took my two hands in his hands and said, / I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that. // And I said, I think I do know. / And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t. // And I said, I do. And he said, What? / And I said, Know that you’re going to die. // And he said, No, I mean that you are.”
When it comes to money, most of us act as if we don’t know that we will die. Jesus’ story is not just about how we are spending our money, but how we are spending our lives. Perhaps his deeper point is that this world, in which we spend ourselves to impress others or to protect our ego, is passing away. In this life we have a singular opportunity to spend ourselves shrewdly for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
The story of the unjust manager may not make complete sense to us yet. But this parable reminds us that a feeling of entitlement and superiority comes along with our money. This can isolate us from God, and make us blind to the needs of others. Jesus’ story also shows us the connection between the spiritual and the material, that God is more pleased by what we give than what we get.
Finally it awakens us to the truth that Jesus’ promise is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. You cannot buy the future. It will never belong to you. But you can act confidently because the future belongs to God. I think this is what my father did when he helped his co-worker. I wonder what effect his simple sacrifice has had in her life over the years. This is what Jesus himself did. Even on the way to the cross he trusted God completely. No home on earth will ever feel completely comfortable or safe because we were made to always draw nearer to our creator.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Mark Johnson and George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By is one of my favorite books. These authors point out that simple unexamined metaphors lie behind the very structure of our thought. The idea of “argument as war” is an example. We talk about winning an argument, an indefensible position, being right on target, shooting down an assumption, etc. We could imagine another culture regarding argument as being more like a kind of dance.[i]
Today Jesus addresses two primal understandings of religion that deeply influenced the people of his society and our own. The first is the idea of a spiritual quest, a search for God. The second idea is that of church as a community of saints set apart from the world. Jesus upsets assumptions that lie so deep in our consciousness that we simply assume that this is just what life in God means.
- The spiritual quest. On December 24, 1915 Albert Einstein was drinking tea in his Berlin apartment when he received a crumpled, muddy, blood-stained letter from the trenches of World War I. It contained a message from the great genius and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916). Let me quote the letter’s final words. “As you see, the war treated me kindly enough, in spite of heavy gunfire, to allow me to get away from it all and take this walk in the land of your ideas.”[ii]
The letter astounded Einstein not simply because one of the most respected scientists in Germany was commanding an artillery unit on the Russian front, or because of the author’s fear of a coming catastrophe. In tiny print on the back page, only legible through the use of a magnifying glass, Schwarzschild had sent him the first exact solution to the Einstein field equations of general relativity.
Schwarzschild’s approach worked well on a normal star which you might imagine as being like a bowling ball sitting on your bed and gently compressing the space around it. The problem arises when a large star exhausts its fuel and collapses. That star would keep compressing until the force of gravity grew to be so great that space would become infinitely curved and closed in on itself. The result would be, “an inescapable abyss permanently cut off from the rest of the universe.”
Out of a sense of duty and perhaps also to show that a faithful Jew could be a good German, Schwarzschild volunteered to serve in the war. During a mustard gas attack he helped two of his men put on masks. Slow to put on his own, this exposure may have been what initiated an autoimmune disorder that painfully covered his body with sores and killed him months later.
At first Schwarzschild dismissed his discovery as a kind of mathematical anomaly, but over time it began to really frighten him. In his last letter from Russia to his wife he wrote that this idea, “has an irrepressible force and darkens all my thoughts. It is a void without form or dimension, a shadow I can’t see, but one that I can feel with the entirety of my soul.”
A young man named Richard Courant stayed up talking with Schwarzschild on the night before he died. Schwarzschild told him that this concentration of mass would distort space and causality.[iii] The true horror was that since light would never escape from it, this singularity was unknowable, utterly unchanging, entirely isolated from everything else. Schwarzschild was one of the first people to contemplate the meaning of a black hole.[iv] But all of us are quite capable of imagining a place completely cut off from God. In fact most of us have been there.
Isolation can feel terrifying. Perhaps you feel misunderstood, or set apart by a secret, or by experiences that makes you different from the people around you. Maybe you believe that something that you did in the past simply cannot be forgiven or that you have been harmed and cannot be healed. Perhaps just the busyness of your life, or the loneliness of it, makes real connection with another person impossible. Or maybe you just feel that you are missing something that others have, that you are cut off from God.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time see him sharing meals with deplorable, notoriously immoral people, with prostitutes and the tax collectors who collaborate with the Roman army. They often point out that these people haven’t really changed or repented. They wonder if Jesus is incurably naïve. They argue that someone who was from God would have the wisdom to realize how bad these people really are.
In response Jesus tells three stories. One is about a wealthy shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to find one in the wilderness. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Lk. 15). Another is about a woman sweeping the whole house to find a coin and concludes saying, “There is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” The last is the story of the Prodigal Son.
In other words Jesus takes our dominant metaphor of a spiritual quest and turns it on its head. Religion is not about seeking God. It is about God’s persistence in finding us. It is about overcoming separation and the joy of reunion.
As a young management consultant one of my closest friends in our Santa Monica office was a young engineer named Walid Iskandar. Walid had grown up in Lebanon during the 1970’s. He was a deeply sincere, thoughtful and fun person with a kind of mischievous smile that I can still see in my mind’s eye.
In college I played rugby with a young freshman who was still trying to figure out the game. His name was Mark Bingham. What these two friends of mine share in common is that they both lost their lives twenty one years ago today when terrorists hijacked their airplanes. In my imagination they are perpetually young. In their last moments, despite the confusion and fear, I believe that God was with them.
In 2018 twelve boys on a soccer team with their coach found themselves trapped deep below the earth in a labyrinthine network of flooded caves in Thailand. As the monsoon season progressed it seemed impossible to nearly everyone in the world that they would be saved. Cave divers from England talked about not being able to see their hands in front of their masks, of wriggling through impossibly narrow spaces again and again unsure of the way out. I will never forget that image of the diver emerging from the water and the amazement on the boys’ faces that they had been found. This joy at being discovered lies at the heart of faith.
- The second idea that Jesus overturns is that the church exists as a community of holy people set apart from the world. You see this in the conviction that you must first think, say, or do something before you can be acceptable to God.
A few weeks ago a very close friend went to the funeral of her father. At the end of the service, the very last words that the pastor spoke went something like this. “Pat was a great husband, father, lawyer and community leader. But until Pat found Jesus and accepted him in his heart, he was a sinner. Only through the sacrifice of Jesus are we cleansed from sin. No matter how hard you might try to be good, until you have accepted Jesus you are a sinner.”
Jesus completely overturns this picture of how to be in God. It’s not that you become good and then God helps you. Instead, God helps us so that we can be healed. The critics of Jesus feel offended by his connection to the people who break the rules. And Jesus tells them, “these are exactly the people I came to help. God’s love is abundant and overflowing. God will always persist in finding those who are lost.”
The point is that God’s love and mercy always comes before anything else. We do not first accept Jesus in our heart and then become free from sin. The church is not a community of former sinners, but of actively sinning sinners. God does not reward us for living well or believing something, God makes living well and faith itself possible by loving us back to life.
Today we celebrate Congregation Sunday and our calling as a unique people of God. There is no other community quite like this one and I love who we are. But let me be perfectly clear, we have not stopped screwing up. And yet we are loved by God anyway. Although we continue to slip up, we keep encountering God’s grace. This makes us a joyful community of people who against all odds God has found in the way that God is finding all people.
Let me close with a poem by Denise Levertov about this peace that passes all understanding. It’s called “The Avowal.”
“As swimmers dare / to lie face to the sky / and water bears them, / as hawks rest upon air / and air sustains them, / so would I learn to attain / freefall, and float / into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, / knowing no effort earns / that all-surrounding grace.”[v]
In the face of isolation, everyday cruelty and sudden death what metaphor are we going to live by? Will we choose to see our life as a spiritual quest or as the experience of being found by God? Are we the holy ones or lost souls grateful every day to be found by God. My friends rejoice with me.
[i] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) 3-7.
[ii] Benjamín Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World tr. Adrian Nathan West (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2020) 34ff. See also “Karl Schwarzschild” on Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Schwarzschild
[iii] A hypothetical traveler capable of surviving a journey into a black hole would receive light and information from the future.
[iv] And the frightening question asked by this dying man was that if such a thing exists in nature, could there be something like this in the human psyche. Could a concentration of human will cause millions to be exploited so that the laws of human relations no longer held? Schwarzschild feared that this was already happening in Germany.
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, 2C32
13 Pentecost (Proper 18C) 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Eucharist
Sunday 4 September 2022
Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17
We have a stained glass window with a larger than life image of the astronaut John Glenn in his spacesuit. Like him, this morning we will travel a great distance in a short time through three little sermons each based on a different reading.
- The first sermon is called, “Hating Your Life.” The world’s Anglican bishops met together at this summer’s Lambeth Conference in England. A group of bishops issued a press release condemning same sex marriage. It demands, “repentance by the revisionist provinces,” and goes on to state that we cannot all be in communion if we have two different opinions about marriage and sexuality.[i]
We experience this kind of Christianity frequently here in North America. All of us encounter Christians who seem to have absolute confidence in knowing precisely who God is and that they are doing exactly what God wants them to do. Often they seem to believe that God hates people whose faith is different than their own. Let me point out that lacking this kind of confidence is not the same thing as lacking faith.
The sermons below are listed by date, with the most recent at the top. You may also use the search tool to browse our sermon archive. Our sermons can also be found as a podcast on the platform of your choosing. If the particular sermon you’re looking for isn’t in the database, please feel free to contact us.
RCL Proper 16C: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
“[B]e attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1).
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, 2C26
Transfiguration (Year C)
Baptisms 11:00 a.m. Eucharist Sunday
7 August 2022
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99:5-9, 2 Peter 1:13-21, Luke 9:28-36
When we were first becoming friends I did not talk much about my old life. Before joining you I served at Christ Church, Los Altos for fourteen years. From inside, that church building looks like a jewel box. It has four massive walls of stained glass. Each 12 x 34 ft. window depicts a different season of the year. The stained glass alone weighs 19,000 pounds. As the first person to arrive there every summer morning I remember the silence and the overwhelming feeling of God’s presence in the light.[i]
Gabriel Loire (1904-1996), the artist who created those windows also made the Grace Cathedral Human Endeavor windows which honor Thurgood Marshall, Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, John Glenn and others. We have other Loire windows in the transept clerestory and the north quire aisle.
But what I really want you to notice today is the rose window that Gabriel Loire also made. It is dedicated to the patron saint of our city, St. Francis, and to the poem attributed to him called the “Canticle of the Sun” (1224-5), the oldest known poem in colloquial Italian.
This is the largest rose window in the far western United States. It is 25 feet in diameter and has 3,800 pieces of glass. Every morning, light from the sunrise filters through it. Every night we illuminate it from inside so that the city can see its beauty and be reminded of God.
In summary, I have spent pretty much every day for twenty-one years experiencing the beauty and love of God through Gabriel Loire windows. Then a month ago for the first time we visited the workshops where all of them were fashioned.
We set out from Chartres Cathedral on one of the most beautiful walks of my life past clay tennis courts and ancient sycamore trees, past a viaduct along a river which wound through green meadows. Without an appointment we walked up the driveway to the Loire studios and a man in white coat like a lab technician asked to help. It turned out to be Bruno Loire, Gabriel Loire’s grandson. He asked us to wait in the gardens and then totally rearranged his schedule so that he could show us everything.
We visited four different studios where they make the glass. We saw a secret project for fashion week. Bruno drove us to a nearby church to see the glass there. We had afternoon tea with Gabriel Loire’s widow. Bruno showed us how he makes the kind of stained glass in our windows. With a mallet he shattered a piece of blue glass and handed it to me as a gift. Still sharp, it cut my thumb. I kept trying to hide the fact that I was bleeding.
And here it is. I want you to imagine that this piece of glass is your truest self, your soul if you will. It is beautiful. It is utterly unique. Perhaps you find it easy to see this holiness and distinctiveness in children. As we get older people have a harder time seeing this beauty in us but it is still there. Whoever you are as you listen to my voice, I want you to know this: that like this piece of glass, you are beautiful.
The musician James Taylor speaks about his first twenty-one years in an autobiographical audiobook (called Break Shot). For a while at the end of his teenage years he was a psychiatric patient at Maclean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts at the same time my grandfather was a chaplain there. I sometimes wonder if they met.
James Taylor talks about being a jealous agnostic. He wants to believe, in part because he sees that if we live only for ourselves, if we only serve our own ego, this selfishness can be a dangerous trap. He sees the power of being in community of caring for other people and the world.[ii]
Today we celebrate baptisms together, the sacrament by which God adopts us as children. It is the way that we become members of the church. It is how we become one with Christ, experience forgiveness of our sins and have new life in the Holy Spirit.
If each of us is like this beautiful fragment of glass. Baptism is the reminder that we are even more beautiful together. Baptism is like having your beautiful fragment of glass included in a vastly larger window. That window is the church and it tells the story of what God did in the past and shows us what God is doing now. In the dark night of the world this light can give other people heart.
This brings me to a difficult topic. We along with 85 million other people are part of the global Anglican communion, the third largest Christian body in the world. This week the bishops of all these churches met together in England. On Friday a group calling itself the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans published a statement. In it they declare that a gathering of churches which cannot agree about same sex marriages cannot be in communion with each other.[iii]
Although these bishops have no authority over us here in North America, these are very alarming words, especially as we worry about the forces that seem to be undermining our nation’s commitment to marriage equality.
At Grace Cathedral we believe that every person without exception is deeply loved by God. This is true of LGBTQ+ people. It is true of same sex couples. We will not stop marrying these couples who come here seeking God’s blessing. We see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.
Let me close with that poem of praise from the thirteenth century that I mentioned earlier as the inspiration for our window, Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun.”
“Praised be my Lord God, with all creatures, and specially our brother the sun, who brings us the day and who brings us the light; fair is he, and he shines with a very great splendor. O Lord, he signifies to us thee! // Praised be my Lord for our sister the moon, and for the stars… which he has set clear and lovely in heaven.”
“Praised be my Lord, for our brother the wind, and for air and clouds, calms and all weather, by which thou upholdest life in all creatures. // Praised be my Lord for our sister water, who is very serviceable to us, and humble and precious and clean.”
“Praised be my Lord for our brother fire, through whom thou givest light in the darkness; and he is bright and pleasant, and very mighty and strong. // Praise be my lord for our mother the earth, … which doth sustain us and keep us, and bringest forth divers fruits, and flowers of many colors, and grass… Praise be my Lord for all those who pardon one another for love’s sake… blessed are they who peacefully shall endure, for thou, O Most High, wilt give them a crown.”[iv]
The face of Moses shone after he had been talking to God. When Jesus spoke to God on the mountain, Luke says that, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Lk. 9). You too are God’s beloved child. You too shine with the glory of God’s majesty.
There are 3,800 pieces of glass in our rose window that is about the same as the number of people who worship here at Christmas. We are beautiful together. And the light of God shines through us.
[ii] James Taylor, Break Shot: My First 21 Years, 2020.
[iv] This translation piously includes the note that another stanza in praise of death was added to the poem on the day St. Francis died, 4 October 1225.
“Praised be my Lord for our sister the death of the body, from whom no man escapeth. Woe to him who dieth in mortal sin. Blessed are those who die in thy most holy will, for the second death shall have no power to do them harm. Praise ye and bless the Lord, and give thanks to him and serve him with great humility.” Translated by Maurice Francis Egan. https://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/2051.html
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young , ThD
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco 2C24
7 Pentecost (Proper 12C) 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Eucharist
Sunday 24 July 2022
Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)
The Holy Spirit is here. An urban legend has it that when David Cameron, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom packed up his office he left three envelopes for his successor Theresa May with a note saying, “Open one of these when you get into trouble.”
When negotiations with the European Union over Brexit started she opened the first envelope. It said, “Blame your predecessor.”[i] Later when she lost the first Brexit vote she opened the second envelope which read, “Reshuffle your cabinet.” Finally, after she lost the third vote on her Brexit plan she opened the final envelope. It said, “Prepare three envelopes.”
This story comes from Sam Wells the Vicar of St. Martin in the Fields. We met with him in London early in our journey this summer. He says there are two primary anxieties in our time, that can be simply expressed by two questions: First, is the universe simply meaningless and accidental, merely dead matter decomposing according to the principle of entropy into isolation and coldness? Second, will I be okay? In the face of this situation Jesus presents us with three far more helpful envelopes for us to open when things go wrong.
I want to talk about these instructions in the context of our Cathedral Tour journey. As we move into the next phase of the pandemic this is a crucial moment in the history of Christianity. Over the winter 31 trustees attended dinners I arranged to talk about how Grace Cathedral can lead and serve in this context. This week my wife Heidi and I returned from visiting over fifty churches in England and France where me met with church leaders to talk about what they see. We took 80 pages of notes, recorded twenty-five video interviews, posted dozens of pictures on social media – I have not yet fully assimilated what we saw or learned but I want to share this experience with you today.[ii]
- Repentance. When Jesus returns to his friends after being away in prayer, they seem anxious and they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus gives them what we call the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. You can carry this around in your heart and when you need help, it gives you a place to begin.
This week I especially noticed how the way we say this prayer differs from the words in this gospel. We pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But this translation of the Bible says, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk. 11). Preachers often make a big deal about the conditional nature of this instruction – if we do this, then God will do something for us. But this morning what strikes me most is that people who love God will naturally want to be forgiving. The struggle over forgiveness and repentance lies at the heart of the spiritual life. A mature believer knows that as we want justice for ourselves, others desire this too.
This leads me to a difficult subject that I need to address. It was very hard for me to leave and to go on this cathedral tour because of tensions here at home in our own community. This is embarrassing for me to talk about, but not long before departing I and many others learned that some Executive Committee trustees were very disappointed in my leadership.
After the pandemic we never resumed meeting in person and what I have to repent for is my role in not doing a better job of communicating and staying connected to them. COVID twists, distorts and confuses so much. It kills relationships as well as people.
One of my most cherished moments of the summer came when we visited the cathedral nearest to our former dean Alan Jones’ childhood home. I kept wondering what Winchester taught him about how to be a dean here 5,000 miles away. A docent named Matt Winter took us on an alarming tour that began with graphic evidence of an ongoing and serious flooding problem in the crypt. He showed us how the very walls of the apse had begun to buckle in the late 1800’s.
Then he talked about the hero who saved the cathedral. A diver named William Wallace rode the train from his home in Croyden every day (on occasion he biked home, but that is another story). At first he had a partner, but that person had to quit because the work was too terrifying. Wallace was a diver in one of those old fashioned suits with the metal fishbowl helmets. His helper had to continuously pump air for him as he went into the dark murky water beneath the massive and collapsing cathedral walls in order to carefully place heavy bags of concrete which then hardened in place. For eight hours a day over five and a half years he did this.
Repentance and forgiveness can be like this – terrifying, difficult and demanding, but this is how a cathedral is really built.
- Persistence. Jesus tells about a man knocking on his neighbor’s door at midnight. The neighbor will give him bread not out of generosity but because he wants to be left alone. It’s a strange image that Jesus uses to encourage us to be persistent in seeking God.
In his book on St. Augustine, Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury writes about memory and time.[iii] When we sing a song from memory, the whole song is not available to us at once, just the part of it that we are singing at that moment. In a sense the end and the beginning of the song are with us but not in our immediate consciousness. It’s like that feeling we have when we are trying to think of a word or name. We say, “it will come to me in a minute.” This gives us a picture of who we are.
In a sense we are our memories and yet our memories are not totally available to us. This is how we experience our self and God. The whole is never completely present to us. Our memories and their meaning are shifting according to the stories we tell. Church gives us the chance to recalibrate, so that our stories again harmonize with the truth. That is a central reason we need to persist in worship.
One of my favorite conversations this summer was with Sub-Dean Richard Peters at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. A week ago after spending four hours with us (drinking sherry in the garden, touring and evensong) he said what he had just inadvertently demonstrated, “Hospitality is fundamental to the Christian life.” This generosity of spirit comes from someone who has been and is constantly not welcomed by the church because for thirty-five years he has loved his life partner Nicholas who happens to be another man.
Richard went on. He said, “Prayer is not that difficult.” We struggle with it, but really it is simply talking to God. This is what allows us to receive the gifts of wonder and awe that are one way that we enjoy God and take delight in God.[iv]
- God’s love. The final envelope that Jesus leaves us is his description of God’s love. How we love our children is an analogy for how God loves us. We know how to give good gifts and God does too. The most important thing I want to share with you today is this. What God is giving us is enough, because what we receive is the Holy Spirit.
One of the best of summer was time with our twenty-one year old daughter Melia. We were not together. I would do anything to please her. We wandered through thrift shops on Brick Lane, small shops in Notting Hill, outdoor markets and the Sky Garden.
We said goodbye sitting at a picnic table in a small Bloomsbury park at dusk. Because I will not be helping her to move into college this year, we don’t know when we will see each other again. Deep feelings like this help us to understand God’s love for us. As we walked away into the night I felt an enormous sense of gratitude for my wife Heidi. She is not just the Executive Producer of our films but a delightful, bright companion through every moment of the summer.
The day after David Ison retired as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, he took us on a behind the scenes tour. At the very end he talked about hearing a confession that upset him so much that he went to pray in a small crypt chapel. Although he had already been dean for years, he discovered something new about his cathedral.
Behind the memorials for Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington there is a small grave for the first modern professional dean of St. Paul’s. Before his time deans might collect a salary from, but not often visit, their own cathedrals. Dean Millman though was a poet and an Oxford University professor who loved his cathedral ministry.
Around his coffin an inscription lists the books he wrote and the nineteen years he served. But a larger inscription encompasses his grave and another. It says, ““IN PIOUS MEMORY OF MARY ANNE THE BELOVED WIFE OF HENRY HART MILLMAN SOMETIME DEAN OF THIS CATHEDRAL CHURCH. BENEATH THIS STONE RESTs IN ONE GRAVE WITH HIM FOR WHOM SHE MADE THE POETRY OF LIFE REALITY.”[v]
My friends, I missed you so much this summer. What a blessing it is to be home with you again and to hear the words of Jesus together. We inhabit a world in agony, struggling over anxiety that can be expressed in two questions: “Is this a dead universe? Will I be okay?” But Jesus does not leave us unprepared. Jesus shows us how to pray.
Although we cannot fully know ourselves or God, let us continue to keep repentance and forgiveness at the heart of our shared life. Let us be known for our persistence in seeking God and in offering hospitality. And finally let us not forget that what God is giving us, is enough. The Holy Spirit is here.
In Luke’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha guides us toward a qualitative approach to hospitality and ministry. What can we do with presence? The work of Christ Episcopal Church, Pottstown, PA, offers a potent example of this discerning approach. In their continued outreach ministry to the hungry, they have been fined by the local zoning board for exceeding the function of the church. And their community remains focused around hospitality and outreach as central to, not a distraction from, being church. How might we, by the same gospel commitment and discernment, be clearer signs of Christ’s presence for one another and for the world?
Proper 11C (RCL)
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42