Sermons For These Times
We have a lot of questions for God and God seems to have a lot to tell us. But the bible is full of questions from the all-knowing God and from Jesus directed toward us. The divine questions are aimed straight at our distress, lament, pain, avoidance, pride and fears. Our answer might best be action.
How do you know if Christianity is true? Proving that there is a personal God or heaven, the trinity or the divinity of Christ might be difficult. Arguing that our religion is the best religion seems silly. I’d much rather hear about what I can learn from other religions than debate their relative deficiencies.
Instead I want to ask about perhaps the central teaching in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is talking about status and its meaning in our life. Quite simply is it better for us as individuals and a society when people use power to dominate others, or should they act in Jesus’ words like “servants.” This question concerns every aspect of our social life. You can see it built into our material world.
- I want to begin with two things I love about San Francisco and what they say about our history. The first is Victorian houses. Between 1850 and 1900 about 40,000 of them were built in San Francisco.[i] The writer Thomas Aidala writes that the, “city was put together out of buildings that roar with fun, that never… take themselves so seriously that they forget to smile.”[ii] Victorian houses were built using the latest technology.[iii] They were thoroughly modern and made to look old. They were mostly sold to working and middle class people. Despite all the changes in real estate markets they still feel like eccentric mansions for ordinary people.
Should Christians be communists? That is, do the New Testament authors expect followers of Jesus to live in communities in which most property is shared? Not to spoil the surprise but I think the answer to this is yes. My sermon today comes in three chapters. The first is on poverty in America. The second is on the way of Jesus concerning wealth. The last section concerns what we might practically do.
- Harry Edwards was the professor of the first class I attended in college. A famous sociologist who specializes in sports, he had been the architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights which led to the black power salute protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. He knew personally all the most famous Black activists from the newspapers and he taught us about them with wisdom and passion.
Professor Edwards was probably the best looking professor I’ve ever had. He dressed stylishly. Standing at 6 foot 8 inches tall and 240 pounds he didn’t have an ounce of fat on his frame. They say education is wasted on the youth. I had no idea how fortunate I was to study with him and I am embarrassed that I don’t think to wonder where he came from.[i]
This fall I found out. I read his autobiography The Struggle that Must Be. In it he describes just one evening in December 1953 to give readers an impression of the poverty experienced by Black people in East St. Louis. In those days eight children lived in his household. At the time his parents were constantly away working and the children pretty much raised themselves with the oldest, Lois at age 12, frequently missing school to care for her younger siblings.
[i] I did know enough to realize that Professor Edwards was helping friends of mine who were athletes.
Becoming the Greatest (in Proverbs and Mark)
“A capable wife who can find?… She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31).
On my dresser I have a faded snapshot. Because my grandmother’s hands were shaking as she held the camera it is blurry too. It shows my grandfather with a crisp white shirt and a tie sitting on the brick steps leading into their house with my four year old self in short pants and a collared shirt, leaning on his leg, sheltered in his right arm.
For a moment I want you to remember your own three year old self and the way someone took care of you just because you are inherently lovable and people could see that more clearly back then. Hold on to this memory. Remember this feeling.
Our topic today is the question of how we should live. Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato taught about this and if you think we have a settled answer, you should talk to the neuroscientist Lisa Miller. She will be my guest on the Forum this Wednesday night.
Dr. Miller characterizes this as, “an age of unprecedented mental anguish.” More than half of the respondents on the National Survey on Drug Use reported binge drinking within the last month. “Thirty-one percent of American adults will develop a full-blown anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.” The World Health Organization reports that 264 million people on the planet are depressed including 17 million American adults. We are in an epidemic of burn-out, chronic stress, trouble concentrating and connecting, loneliness and isolation. You can see this written on the faces of the people around us on the New York subway or our SF Muni.[i]
Miller makes two observations. First from her work in psychiatric units she saw that really we have only two ways of treating depression. First, there is psychotherapy which often searches for examples of childhood trauma that can end up leaving a patient feeling like merely a victim of her past. Second there are medications. Second, she noticed from statistical regression analysis of survey data that people whose mother dese seem to be 80% less likely to suffer from depression.
“I’m a scientist not a theologian,” she writes. She does not put herself forward as a theologian writing about the nature of God, but she strongly believes that we are by nature spiritual creatures and that ignoring this causes terrible suffering. How are we to live? Saying that spirituality matters isn’t enough. What will our spiritual life look like?
Recently I did a short video message on a New York Times article which misrepresented the role of atheism and faith on campus at Harvard University.[ii] A couple of atheists came out of the woodworks and confronted me. One in particular claims that God is just like Santa Claus and the Bible is a terrible book because of its treatment of genocide, rape, murder, etc.
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.
To the bath and to the table, to the prayers and to the word, God calls every seeking soul. This is the English translation of an inscription found on the bell of a Danish Lutheran church in the Upper Midwest. The church was the site of important liturgical movements that place baptism at the center of a Christian life. Every seeking soul, without exception, is called beloved by God. Through the waters of baptism, the prayers of the community, the living word proclaimed in our lives, the nourishment of Communion, we can be signs of the love that calls us.
“Do not get drunk with wine… but be filled with the spirit” (Ephesians 5).
- This morning I am going to teach you how to meditate, or at least how I meditate. But first I want to point out something that you may have already noticed.
On the corner of Arguello and Jackson you will find a stop sign with magical properties. Under certain circumstances it becomes invisible. Even though I am well aware of this phenomenon, I have run straight through the intersection without stopping twice. I’ve seen many other people do the same thing. It’s not hidden, or smaller, or less red or octagonal than other stop signs, but something about that intersection makes it hard to notice.
We never come close to really seeing what is in our field of vision. You realize this riding a bicycle around San Francisco. You can be in the very middle of an intersection and discover that a driver doesn’t even see you. My brother bought me a red helmet and a red jacket. I couldn’t believe what a big boost this gave to my visibility.
I believe that our experience of God is a little like this. For the most faithful believers and the most ardent atheists, God is in our field of vision or rather in the range of what we experience and yet most often we don’t notice. We are absorbed by inner dramas, daydreams about what we are going to do next, or thoughts about other people, regrets about the past, fear about the future, politics, etc. So we just don’t see God.
The purpose of this striking Cathedral, with these majestic columns and the light filtering through these arresting stained glass windows and the extraordinary music, is getting us to notice God who is with us not just at this moment but at all times.
I do not know why God chooses to appear in this way to us. I do not know why this seems pretty much like the nature of reality for human beings. I can’t really imagine what any other existence would be like. Many people I know have had the experience of God’s brightness being so obvious that they couldn’t help but notice. And many of the same people have had times when they were desperate to recognize God but couldn’t find anything Holy.
Meditation helps me to really experience God’s companionship throughout each day. It helps me to be less at the mercy of my fantasies and worries, and more present in what is really happening.
- Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha began teaching meditation in India. People like me wondered what he was doing and would come to him and ask, “are you a god?” He said no. “Are you an angel?” No. “Are you a great prophet?” No. “What are you then?” And he answered, “I am awake.” The word buddha comes from the Sanskrit word to wake up.
So much of the time we go through life never really being awake. On Thursday night I was filming my little weekday message and accidentally captured a few seconds of me talking to myself. Let’s just say I was not being very complimentary or kind.
Mostly our minds act like the color commentator on a football television broadcast who tells us how fast each linebacker can run a forty yard dash, or that a receiver grew up in a foster home, or that a kicker has lost his edge and should retire. Our minds are constantly evaluating everything, full of criticisms of others and ourselves. We go through life at the mercy of this ego.
So many people around us believe that happiness comes from money, fame, popularity, intelligence, from having a perfect body or a perfect soul. We take this in, thinking that if we just accomplish the next goal then we will really be happy. But this is like chasing the horizon. As soon as you arrive at the place where the horizon was, it has moved an equivalent distance away.
What really makes us happy is being thoughtful toward others, patient, cheerful, helpful, kind, especially toward the people we see most often. Paul calls this being “in Christ” or “having the mind of Christ.” And to do this we require a certain freedom from envy and selfishness, from the compulsions, irritation, and pettiness of our ego. The Buddha says, “all we are is the result of what we have thought.” Meditation as a form of prayer reshapes the way I think.
- I feel blessed that my parents understood that children need to have a spiritual life. As a teenager they introduced me to a Hindu teacher named Eknath Easwaran. Easwaran came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship and lectured on English at U.C. Berkeley until he began teaching meditation fulltime. His friends sometimes called him EE. He was humble, kind, down to earth and helped me immensely to become a better Christian.
His first lesson was a simple one: we are not our bodies. He used to say, “You wouldn’t confuse me for my tan wool jacket would you? My body is not me either!” We need to take care of our bodies, eating healthy food, getting enough exercise and sleep, but that isn’t us. We do it because our bodies are useful for accomplishing our spiritual purposes.
EE’s second lesson felt a little more startling. We are not our thoughts. When you are in traffic on Fell Street and the driver of the car ahead of you is clearly reading a long email as he drives, you may feel anger rising up in you. But that anger is not you. It is a passing feeling. You don’t have to let it control you. The same is true of fear, resentment, envy. These emotions do not have to own you.
So if we are not our body and not our mind, what are we? EE taught that in profound meditation we become concentrated on our true identity as children of God. The boundaries that separate us from others and from God disappear and we experience a deeper way of knowing which is a connection to all things.
Albert Einstein wrote about this experience, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
- Practically speaking I meditate for half an hour first thing in the morning. I sit comfortably in a straight back chair with my eyes closed and very slowly repeat a passage from the Bible or a great spiritual teacher like St. Augustine. You might start with the Prayer of St. Francis. “Lord make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred let me sow love…” Or with Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” I say each word slowly so it drops deep into my consciousness.
It is far easier to describe than it is to practice. Our bodies and minds both have their own ways of rebelling. You may find your leg falls asleep or your arm twitches. More common though are thoughts about the day’s appointments, or the newspaper, or a million other distractions that cause the mind to wander. Each time I get distracted I gently bring myself back to the passage. If I go too far in following the train of my thoughts I start at the beginning of the passage again.
Sometimes one experiences a tremendous wave of joy. At other times it’s hard to even stay awake. One might hear sounds or see lights. All this happens as we descend to another level of consciousness. It’s important not to be distracted by these things and to return to the words of the passage. I don’t know how to describe this sense of God’s presence but later in the day I can come back to that feeling of really being with God.
St. Frances de Sales writes, “Even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your mind back and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Finally, you may be asking yourself is this kind of meditation Christian? For me it is a very practical way of realizing the promises that we hear in Scripture. For instance, in the biblical readings appointed for today Solomon asks God not for wealth or power but the wisdom of the heart and Mind (Leb) to understand the difference between good and evil. Paul encourages the Ephesians to sing psalms and hymns and make melody to the Lord in our hearts as a way of thanking God in Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus talks about the way that he lives because of the father. He promises that we can abide in him.
For me all of this happens through meditation. Every day praying like this helps me to draw more deeply into the divine wisdom, it gives me a way to thank God for my existence and to live more completely in Christ. Above all it helps me to really see what is already in the field of my vision, the abiding joy that God delights in through creation.
 Eknath Easwaran, Passage Meditation: Bringing the Deep Wisdom of the Heart into Daily Life (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2010) 17.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 34.
 Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer (NY: Seabury Press, 1979) 833 and 612.
 Eknath Easwaran, Passage Meditation: Bringing the Deep Wisdom of the Heart into Daily Life (Tomales, CA: Nilgiri Press, 2010) 46.
 b§El 1 Kings 3:9.
 lalouvnteß e˚autoi√ß [e˙n] yalmoi√ß kai« u¢mnoiß kai« wˆÓdai√ß pneumatikai√ß, aˆ‡donteß kai« ya¿llonteß thØv kardi÷aˆ uJmw◊n twˆ◊ kuri÷wˆ,
eujcaristouvnteß pa¿ntote uJpe«r pa¿ntwn e˙n ojno/mati touv kuri÷ou hJmw◊n ∆Ihsouv Cristouv twˆ◊ qewˆ◊ kai« patri÷. Ephesians 5:19-20.