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Sunday, March 22
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 12
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, March 22
Seeing, Belonging, Becoming in the Days of Coronavirus
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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Malcolm Clemens Young 1 Samuel 16:1-13
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA 2A14 Psalm 23
4 Lent (Year A) 11:00 a.m. Eucharist Mostly Online Ephesians 5:8-14
Sunday 22 March 2020 John 9:1-41

Seeing, Belonging, Becoming in the Days of Coronavirus
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light…” (Ephesians 5).

How do you see things differently now? As coronavirus fear takes hold, and society shuts down, what is changing in you? I have three chapters on seeing, belonging and becoming.

1. Seeing. Annie Dillard writes that, “Seeing is… a matter of verbalization. Unless I call attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is as [John] Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full and clear sense of the word, unseen.””

Dillard describes what happened when surgeons first learned how to perform safe cataract operations to give sight to dozens of people of all ages who had been blind from birth. Many doctors tested their patients’ sense perceptions before and after the surgery. They found that the vast majority of patients had no sense of space at all. They fundamentally did not understand the idea of form, distance, size or depth. The world just looked like flat patches of vivid color to them.

Before the operation the doctor would give the patient a cube or a sphere to hold. After the surgery they were showed the same object, but it seemed unrecognizable unless they could touch it. When the doctor asked a girl how big her mother was she held her index fingers a few inches apart. One newly sighted person played a game with herself of tossing a boot on the floor and then trying to guess how far away it was.

Some patients were terrified by the tremendous size of a world that previously seemed manageable and touchable. They felt overwhelmed by the effort required to comprehend everything new. Others experienced an uncomfortable new self-consciousness. They felt ashamed of what others had been seeing in them all along.

A disturbing number of patients wanted to return to being blind or simply refused to use their new sense. One girl, whose father had longed for the operation, never seemed happier than when she would carefully shut her eyes as she walked around her house. A doctor wrote about, “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic of those who have never seen.”

At the same time many who gained their sight so profoundly relished their new visual experience that they help us to not take its wonders for granted. Althought our hnds are mostly invisible to us, one patient marveled at it. She described it as, “something bright and then holes.” A little girl visiting a garden paused, speechless standing in front of a tree. As she touched it she called it, “the tree with the lights in it.”

A twenty year old girl was so dazzled by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. At the end of that time she opened her eyes with an expression of such joy and astonishment, as she kept repeating, “Oh God! How beautiful!”

2. Belonging. What we see arises out of how we belong. This is true of what we see physically and what we see spiritually. We might forget that this is part of the philosopher Plato’s (423-347 BC) point in his book Republic. He gives us that memorable image of prisoners confusing shadows on the back of their cave for reality. Plato wants us to understand that the ruling elite construct our shared reality and maintain it for their own purposes. They try to determine how we will all see.

Just prior to our Gospel story, Jesus has come into severe conflict with the authorities over exactly this issue. The argument gets so heated that they try to kill him right there but he escapes into hiding (Jn. 8:59).

Then walking along Jesus meets someone who is invisible to nearly everyone, a blind beggar. Like us, from childhood he has been socialized. He has been taught to believe in a particular picture of the world, that our health is determined by our own sinful actions or those of our parents. His society regards him as unclean and he probably sees himself in that way too.

We might think that we have grown out of this way of thinking. But as events unfold around the coronavirus I am sure we will continue to hear people who want to blame and scapegoat others for our suffering. I refuse to believe that our Chinese brothers and sisters are responsible for this no matter who it is that accuses them.

The religious leaders ask Jesus, “who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind?” This is not just about politics. It also reminds me of people who cannot believe in God because of the suffering that they see. Jesus replies that it does not help to ask why the man was born blind. Instead we should be looking for a way to do God’s work.

Jesus spits in the dirt, makes it into clay, puts it on the blind man’s eyes and asks him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Through this baptism this man is completely transformed. He is reborn not just physically but spiritually. For him the world is no longer a place in which God punishes people with blindness, or where we have to accept the judgment of leaders who continually assert their own superiority over others. His identity has changed too. He’s not the blind man any more. He’s not the beggar, but a new person who can see the truth and has the confidence to confront authorities. And this makes him unrecognizable to nearly everyone.

There is too much to say about this. To maintain their false picture of an all-embracing sacred order the religious leaders threaten the parents with expulsion from the synagogue. Ultimately these authorities give up their argument with the blind man. They want to put him back in the box saying that he was born in sin. They excommunicate him. But by this time everything is clear.

Jesus finds him and points out the obvious. Jesus has come, “for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind” (Jn. 9).

3. Becoming. Seeing and belonging ultimately lead us to the truth, the Holy One, the source of all things. As the coronavirus threatens our souls, as fear grips the people around us, as the foundations of the social order appear to be melting, people of faith have an invisible source of consolation. The Christian tradition reminds us what it was like when we went through times like these before.

About once in every generation from the 1340’s to the 1600’s Christians faced the plague. Imagine life for St. Catherine of Siena when between early spring and the end of August in 1493 four-fifths of the population died. Someone wrote, “for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and the sight.” There were not enough survivors to bury the bodies.

Great mystics of these dangerous times have contributed to our spiritual DNA. At the gate of death, in an almost fatal illness, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) came so close to God that we still remember the words that moment inspired. She wrote about the power of divine love to be everything for us saying, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The great preacher Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) taught that the, “seed of God is in us,” that we were created for union with God. He believed that the capacity for outer vision is so nurtured by the distractions of life that it is over-developed. While our inward or spiritual vision is correspondingly weak.

Eckhart believes that we identify ourselves with the wrong things – with our status or reputation. Our ego needs seem insatiable. And our soul is so busy with frivolous details. But God’s love draws us toward the Divine. And when we strip away the clutter we find ourselves at the self that understands its being is from God. He writes, “Grace is not a stationary thing; it is always found in becoming.”

Finally, Eckhart says, “when this birth really happens no creature in all the world will stand in your way, and what is more, they will all point you to God… Indeed, what was formerly a hindrance becomes now a help. Everything stands for God and you see only God in all the world.”

A month ago coronavirus seemed like a problem for far distant peoples. Today we are sheltering in place, talking constantly about superspreaders, flattening the curve, social distancing and the supply of ventilators as the global economy melts down.

Stay at home. Prepare yourself and those around you for the worst. But also, remember that we do not experience the world as it is but only through the stories that give us meaning.

Be baptized. Be reborn. Use this sabbath time to see more deeply into reality, into this vast, beautiful and colorful world. Stretch your picture of belonging more widely to recognize what we did not quite notice before, that without exception the whole human family is one. Become more fully alive in God.

We did this before. So let God’s works be revealed in you. Live as children of light. All will be well.

Sunday, March 15
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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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, February 23
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Dr. Rowan Williams
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Tuesday, February 18
What is Spiritual Courage?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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What Is Spiritual Courage?

Not long ago a perceptive friend told me that I didn’t quite look right in my official Cathedral portrait. She was afraid of hurting my feelings and she was right. For the picture the photographer took me up to the balcony and asked me to stand very close to the edge. Naturally enough the look on my face is that of someone who is trying to smile but really feels deeply afraid of falling.

We know what physical courage is. It is staying calm and being effective in the face of threats to our body. This might be surfing double overhead surf at Ocean Beach, catching a football at kickoff, a soldier running on the field of battle or a gymnast or dancer or yogi going beyond the limits that usually contain us. Most often it has to do with how we face a medical emergency.

But what is spiritual courage? I believe there are two kinds of spiritual courage. The first is bravery in the face of spiritual forces that are so powerful that we want to look away. Being really present in the face of death or terrible suffering requires a kind of courage that we don’t often encounter. Most of us in one way or another avoid what we know might upset us. This leaves us unprepared for the time when we have to honestly face our mortality. It also closes us to a lot of life because suffering is all around us, and helping each other is part of what makes us whole.

The second kind of spiritual courage has to do with the power of spiritual symbols. When it comes to spirituality we need symbols because we are dealing with matters that are so far beyond us. We cannot say exactly what we mean by God, forgiveness, joy or reconciliation and so we use powerful symbols to draw us nearer to those realities.

The definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. These symbols are necessary for getting at the deepest truths of our humanity and they have extraordinary power. The second kind of spiritual courage comes from not being afraid to redefine these symbols for the sake of a deeper truth.

It may not seem like a big deal to you but when I was a child growing up there were no female Episcopal priests. In North America it was only in 1975 when women first began getting ordained in the Episcopal Church. One of my colleagues Ellen Clark-King became a priest in the first year that women were ordained in England (in 1994).

These women helped to change the meaning of a symbol (the priesthood) so that we could realize a deeper truth – that all people are made in the image of God and can effectively represent the church or serve it by pointing to God.1 The symbol is so powerful that change was especially hard.

These women suffered terribly as pioneers. At first people refused to take communion from them or to invite them to their churches. These women were abused verbally and even physically. People were unkind to them until their work of changing the meaning of that symbol began to be accomplished. It has been one of the greatest blessings of my life to be able to work with these women who are my heroes.

In how you speak and practice yoga and how you live, you are defining what spirituality means in our time. I pray that you will have the courage to not look away from death and suffering, that you will not insulate yourself from what it means to really be alive. I also pray that you will not be afraid when you meet opposition in your work for the sake of a deeper truth.

________________________

Yoga Quotes:

You haven’t yet opened your heart fully, to life, to each moment. The peaceful warrior’s way is not about invulnerability, but absolute vulnerability–to the world, to life, and to the Presence you felt. All along I’ve shown you by example that a warrior’s life is not about imagined perfection or victory; it is about love. Love is a warrior’s sword; wherever it cuts, it gives life, not death.

—Dan Millman

Way of the Peaceful Warrior

Healers are spiritual warriors who have found the courage to defeat the darkness of their own souls. Awakening and rising from the depths of their deepest fears, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Reborn with a wisdom and strength that creates a light shines bright enough to help, encourage, and inspire others out of their own darkness.

—Melanie Koulouris

Sunday, February 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
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Sunday, February 9
Until All Is Accomplished
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“We are beggars who are trying to show other beggars where we have found bread.”[1]

  1. It is impossible to speak directly about God. When it comes to God we have no choice beyond the language of paradox. You may have heard someone say that God does not exist. Most people today mean this in a dismissive way, that God is not real.

But faithful theologians also point out another sense of this phrase. They explain that God does not exist as a thing in a world of things, in the way that a toaster, Rockridge Station, a California Poppy, or a fragment of serpentine rock does. Instead God is the creator, the source of everything, the active energy, the condition that constantly makes possible the world, and everything new. The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich calls God “the Ground of Being.”[2]

The other day a pattern of sand on my shoe reminded me of the shape of the constellation Orion and I had this thought. Rigel, one of Orion’s stars, could be as much as 363,000 times as luminous as our sun. And yet those massive stars are more insignificant in relation to the expanse of the entire universe than are these grains of sand to our planetary home.[3]

Imagine what it is to be God for whom worlds are just specks you find on your shoe after coming in for a walk. Imagine what it is like to be God who comprehends and encloses centuries, millenia, light years, the origin and the outermost limits of all time and space. Of course, we cannot. We can never come close to grasping this mystical, enchanted, interconnected existence of ours.

And we will not be satisfied. In our hearts we experience a striving, a yearning, a longing to be complete or whole or fulfilled. One of the most important ideas for the authors of the gospel is “fulfillment” (or in Greek plēroō). They write about the scripture being fulfilled in what is happening now. They say that Jesus came to fulfill the law. For them fulfillment is what happens when something that is an idea becomes real or is brought to life.

To fulfill a responsibility means to do the thing we implicitly promised to do. Being fulfilled means becoming who we were created to be. The ancient writer Irenaeus says, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” This is the challenge of being human.

  1. Several months ago the Swiss Consul General invited me to speak about this at the premier of a new German language film about Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). Zwingli was one of the primary leaders of the Reformation in the sixteenth century from his Grossmunster Church in Zurich. Deeply influenced by humanism and the thought of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) Zwingli had a passion for getting back to the sources of truth (ad fontes). For him this meant the Bible.

In 1519 Zwingli had what we would call a near death experience after becoming sick with the plague. He wrote “Pestlied” or “Plague Song” about what had happened. He fervently believed that his life had been spared for a purpose. He finally understood what would fulfill his life.

Zwingli believed that holy scripture is utterly distinct from anything else in human experience. So he abandoned the regular schedule of readings and began preaching his way through the whole Bible. In today’s reading the Prophet Isaiah denounces religious hypocrisy that cares more about ritual observance than how we treat the poor. Isaiah writes, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?… you fast only to quarrel” (Isa. 58).

This was part of what radicalized Zwingli and led him to strongly oppose the city’s right to impose fasts on the citizens. Zwingli saw life in black and white terms. For him worship is an interior matter. Outward actions are only distractions from true worship which takes place in our hearts. He came to detest repetitive prayers, vestments, art, relics, ornament and even ritual.

Imagine his Carolingian church Grossmunster completed in the year 1215 with interior decorations that had been only finished by 1518. Then between June 20 and July 2, 1524 Zwingli and his committee removed all art from the church.[4] Of all the reformers Zwingli loved music the most and had the greatest skills as a musician, but because he could find no evidence in the Bible of music as part of worship, music was banned in his church for a hundred years.

Zwingli tragically wrote, “Farewell, my temple-murmurings! I am not sorry for you. I know that you are not good for me. But welcome, O pious, private prayer that is awakened in the hearts of believing men through the Word of God.”[5] All week I have been haunted by the mental picture of an organist weeping as the church organ was removed and destroyed.

You might dismiss some of the Reformer’s actions as fanatical, but they were trying to answer the question how can we know God, how can our life be fulfilled? And although there is so much I disagree with them, they continue to help me to grow more deeply into God’s grace.

For instance, John Calvin (1509-1564) writes that, “You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe in its wide expanse without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.”[6] He points out that in every moment God’s magnificent glory is obviously present to us and yet something about us makes it hard to see God.

Something has gone wrong in us which he describes as sin. But that is not the end of the story for Calvin. Although we are lost and cannot hope to understand God on our own, we have Jesus who shows us God’s true loving nature. Calvin writes that the Bible is like a thread that we can follow to find our way through the vast maze of our life. For Calvin, a moment of instanteous conversion is far less important than a life of gradual sanctification as we grow closer to God.

  1. During our remaining time I want to show an example of how in the face of deep mysteries, God’s word helps us to navigate life. Just as the people of Zwingli and Calvin’s time had blindspots that we recognize as glaring shortcomings, we too are enthralled to myths that are invisible to us.

One of the most powerful illusions of our time is what we call meritocracy. This is the belief that we are entirely responsible for what we become. David Brooks points out the way that this belief distorts our language as economic ideas come to describe non-economic experiences, so that “Character is no longer [about] love, service and care, but a set of workplace traits [such as] grit, productivity and self-discipline.”[7] Many people around us are “swallowed whole” by this illusion and cannot find meaning in anything other than their work.[8]

In the face of our deep tendency to believe that we will only be acceptable or loved if we work hard and succeed, Jesus offers another way, a paradox that holds two truths together. This week at my clergy group we talked about what we had learned as priests. One of my younger colleagues talked about her cousin who never did anything for anyone else and then died of a drug overdose. We talked about how it is possible to waste your life, that what we do matters and has irrevocable consequences.

In today’s Gospel, as we look for a way out of our illusions, Jesus holds this truth together with another, the truth that God loves us just as we are, without exception, no matter what. Jesus says that we are like a tiny bit of salt that has a larger than expected effect on the whole meal. No matter who we are, our life is like a light, that can be seen from a distance and can help someone find their way home. This goodness is so evident that it can no more be hid than Sutro Tower or the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco.

And yet the corresponding truth holds also. Jesus has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it “until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5). Our goodness is not what will save us, but we cannot dispense with it either. The Ten Commandments still hold. We are not loved because we are good. Our goodness is deepened because we know that we are loved.

When the children’s television actor Mister Rogers was in seminary he and a friend went out of their way to go to hear a famous preacher. It was not until after the service began that they realized that the famous preacher wasn’t there. Instead the sermon was given by a supply preacher who was in his eighties. Although Mister Rogers said that he had heard great sermons by octagenerian preachers this was not one of them. He called it one of the most poorly crafted sermons he had heard in his life.

When he leaned over to his friend to express his relief that it was over, he noticed she had tears in her eyes. She whispered to him, “He said exactly what I needed to hear.” Mister Rogers thought about that moment for a long time, about how he had come to church in judgment and she had come in need, about how the Holy Spirit was able to take that weak sermon and speak to the heart of his friend. Rogers said, “That experience changed my life. Ever since then, I’ve been able to recognize that the space between someone who is offering the best he can and someone who is in need is Holy Ground.”

 

We have always been seekers on our way to being fully alive. The oldest human-made image of Orion was carved 38,000 years ago by our ancestors on Whoolly Mamouth tusk discovered in Germany. It is impossible to speak directly about God. But this is the Holy Ground we inhabit. We are beggars trying to show other beggars where we have found bread. We are the salt. We are the light. We will be fulfilled.

 

[1] D.T. Niles from David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (NY: Random House, 2019) xxii.

[2] “Every understanding of spiritual things (Gesteswissenschafte) is circular.” Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume One (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 9.

[3] Wikipedia, “Orion” and “Rigel.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(constellation) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigel

[4] Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 257.

[5] “Farewell, my temple-murmurings! I am not sorry for you. I know that you are not good for me. But welcome, O pious, private prayer that is awakened in the hearts of believing men through the Word of God. Yes, a small sigh, which does not last long, realises itself and goes away again quickly. Greetings to you, common prayer that all Christians do together, be it in Church or in their chambers, but free and unpaid; I know that you are the sort of prayer to which God will give that which He promised.” Cited in Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth (Engaging Culture: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] “The universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 52 (I.V.1).

[7] David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (NY: Random House, 2019) 23.

[8] Our belief in meritocracy is why we were so offended by last year’s college admissions scandal.

Sunday, February 2
Sunday Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
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Sunday, January 26
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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