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Sunday, February 16
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
Honoring the Violins of Hope
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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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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 19
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: Alonzo King
"I relax, and cast aside all mental burdens Allowing God to express through me his perfect peace, love, and wisdom."
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Thank you Dean and thank you everyone at Grace who have been so warm and so inviting, it has been a wonderful time that LINES has been here and it’s not over. We are thrilled to be here.

I would like to start with an affirmation by Yogananda. I’m going to say it and if you could repeat after me.
“I relax, and cast aside all mental burdens
Allowing God to express through me his perfect peace, love, and wisdom.”

This time of year, we’re still in January; it is a boon in the way it is structured, because we come out of the joy of Christmas and the celebration of Christ, and we step into the new year with support and cheering assistance so that we can renew ourselves. We look at ourselves, and this is where resolutions arise, and we say we too want to renew in the new year, and usually that means some cleaning. It’s always easy to look at someone else and see what needs to be repaired, but when it comes to ourselves, it’s not so easy. And so that introspective look of impersonal analysis that examines our habits, and sees where we are going, what we’re becoming – it’s a great opportunity to look at that and say, do I like what I’m becoming and where I’m going. That introspection, buoyed by this new year, can help us to change; and we human beings, individuals changing ourselves, are helping the entire world – that is how we assist.

There is a story that is common in India where they talk about going to the Ganges. And that if you bathe in the Ganges that your sins are washed away. The joke is that when you step toward the Ganges all your negative habits and negative ways of thinking, they leave because they don’t want to get into those holy waters. So when you step into the holy waters you are refreshed and you feel new and you feel rebirthed and clean. And when you get out of the water, those habits are waiting. And as soon as you get out, they jump right back on you. They call them the monkeys. The monkeys that are waiting in the trees after you get out of the refreshing dip in the Ganges. And so, too, that is like us – we begin with this firm conviction, we go forward with zeal, and inevitability, the monkeys come and jump on our back again.

I watched the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech that he gave at Grace, last night. It was incredibly powerfully moving and I wanted to read some words from it: Dr. King said that “Man must seek to develop his inner powers in a brilliant manner, no matter how small it may be according to the world’s standards. He must see that it has cosmic significance if it is for the upbuilding of humanity. He must come to see that whatever he is called to do is significant, if it is for the making of a better world. So, if you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley – but be the best little scrub on the side of the rill. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail, be the best of whatever you are. And this determined push to the end of self realization, this inward drive to develop one’s inner powers is the length of a human being’s life.”

It’s beautiful. And in it’s deeper meaning, it’s pointing to the fact that we are souls. And that when we human beings who have our essence disguised in these bodies, and we identify with these bodies, when we delve into the senses like food, you identify with the body, you’re locked in, but in reality Christ has told us who we are and what we are. His words in John, “Ye are gods.” – “Know ye not that ye are gods and that the kingdom of Heaven resides within you.” Not outside somewhere to run to, but within you. Very deep, profound statement.

Many physicists have said that this cosmos looks more like a grand mind, than just a working machine. The brilliance of an unimaginable, Omnipotent mind. In our struggle to claim our real identification, we have mentally separated ourselves from that mind. That Omnipotent mind is just beneath the surface of our minds. Just behind the darkness of our closed eyes. Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi says, “We are waves on the vast ocean of that omnipotent mind.” But we are like bottles of ocean that are corked and we have to uncork that bottle and dissolve back into that Magnificent Ocean. We can tap into that ocean because thoughts are universal. We think, individually, that we’re thinking about our own little thoughts in our own little world – no, we plug into that limitless realm of thought. Whether it’s negative or positive, God was the creator. Good or bad, He created all of creation. And so, we have the ability, as waves, to find the way where we can relax, and let go. Find that identity – and how is that found? It’s akin to the way salmon have to go back to their spawning grounds – swimming upstream against the current, a rushing roaring, impossibly difficult, current. We have to travel against that stream to return back to bliss.

Dr. King said, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change. Gandhi referred to his form of nonviolence as satyagraha meaning truth-force or love-force.” Each of these great mighty men were using love as the transformative force to help mankind. Gandhi, in his literature on nonviolence, says that it’s not just about saying I’m nonviolent, but it’s actually to begin to love that person and realize that that person is merely playing a role. And I read recently that he said, “Even if a vegetarian admonishes a meat eater for eating meat, that is violence.” Dr. King goes on to say, “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” And the question arises, who is not oppressed on planet earth? There is the schisms, there’s the war, religious sectarianism, the greed, materialism, the boomerang of evil, but they both talk about how that can be transformed through love. The application is that everyone of us has some form of oppression inside of us – again those monkeys – that we too, through our behavior and the way that we think, want to eradicate. Because it helps the world, it helps mankind, or humanity, I should say.

Dr. King and Gandhi were looking to remove oppression from the world and how to rid the world of evil by helping their brothers and sisters. The Gita says that a lot of the struggle is actually karmic. There is personal karma, there’s karma in families, there is karma in cities, countries and there’s world karma. Karma is really the law of retribution, what you put out, returns to you. The old testament, when they are talking about karma, they say “God is an angry god and he seeks revenge.” It’s impossible for God to be angry. It doesn’t make sense, it’s an aberration. God is love. God is unconditional love. No matter what mistakes we make, no matter what bad habits we have – God is unconditional love. But the old testament was referring to the law of cause and effect. The law that was created by God and God is above the law. Yoganada says, “Since God is not bound by his cosmic law, devotion is also necessary to summon his attention. Devotional demand is greater than law, than the law of cause and effect, because it touches the heart of God and makes him answer his naughty and good children alike. Law is based on mathematical precision – justice weighted according to the law of cause and effect. Devotion is based upon claiming God as your own true love. Law is exacting in it’s demand, but love presupposes God’s mercy and thereby attracts his response whether or not the full measure of the law has been met.” That’s tremendous – that love is above the law.

Dr. King says, “If you can understand and feel, even in the midst of those critical and often physically painful moments, that your attacker is as much a victim as you are, that he or she is a victim of the forces that have shaped and fed his anger – then you are well on your way to the nonviolent life.” Seeing roles – every person has to play their role. This is teaching us how to see people. When people identify as this age, race, sex, religion, we must respect that. But we have to see people no matter how they appear or behave, as souls. Souls with roles – we all have our roles to play. And this brings the Shakespearean statement, “All of life is a stage” into a true reality. Some play huge roles on earth, others small personal roles. But, all souls are equal. So whether it’s on the big stage of the planet with the entire world watching, or in a little village, the soul shines. All souls are equal.

A few definitions of the soul. This self, soul, is never born, nor does it ever perish, nor having come into existence, will it again cease to be. It is birthless, eternal, changeless, ever the same, unaffected by the usual processes associated with time. It is not slain, when the body is killed.

The universal everything is made of the singular consciousness of God. When a spark of that consciousness is individualized by God, it becomes a soul, capable of ultimately expressing the God image in which it is made. In essence, the soul is perfect and complete. An exact reflection of God’s ever existing, ever conscious, ever new bliss.

A land, a country, a nation, is conserved through it’s masterpieces of humanity. And so, again, our work is to realize that we’re not weak, whining mortals, we are immortals. A difficult task. Often people say, “I feel I have a great purpose to accomplish in life” and that is true, that purpose is to find out who and what we really are. And Christ tells us who we are when He says, “Know ye not that ye are gods.”

I’d like to close with what is known as the quality that God cherishes most, humility. By Andrew Murray, “Humility is Perpetual quietness of heart. It is to have no trouble. It is never to be fretted or vexed, irritable or sore; to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.”

I would close with one last affirmation by Paramahansa Yogananda, if you could repeat after me.

I am submerged in eternal light.
That light permeates every particle of my being.
I live in that light.
The divine spirit fills me, within and without.
I am submerged in eternal light.
That light permeates every particle of my being.
I live in that light.
The divine spirit fills me, within and without.

Sunday, January 12
How to Hear the Voice of the Lord
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare…” (Isa. 42).
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“See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare…” (Isa. 42).

We have celebrated moments of such great joy in this cathedral. Ten thousand people came here over Christmas and it felt electric. But this is also where we gather in times of unthinkable tragedy. On Thursday we had the funeral for Elizabeth a wonderful 43 year old mother of one of our choristers. She had succeeded at the top universities, worked in the most prestigious jobs, and then was the best single mother you will ever meet for an eight year old daughter and a ten year old son.

Elizabeth’s father asked the school chaplain to read the eulogy he wrote for his daughter. I do not think I will ever forget the agony on his face as he heard the priest reading his own words to all of us. At the end he talked about how Elizabeth had been with the children for their most formative years, that her values would always be their values… that her voice would always be deep within them.

One way of describing what it means to be human is to say that we are a collection of these voices. All sorts of voices speak to us in our inner life. Some that tear us down. Others that support us. They say things like “You’re stupid,” “That’s not good enough,” “you’ll never make it” or “She loves me no matter what,” or “this is my home.”

The voices come from many different sources – from the people we knew in the past, from kids at school, work colleagues, Sunday School teachers. They come from television, newspapers and the internet. But at a certain stage the loudest voice comes from our parents.

Many of you may not be aware of this but we are facing a public health crisis right now among our young people. The rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among teenagers and people in their early twenties has shot up.[1] Some wonder if this is related to the rise of social media. Those internet voices are in all of us. They may be part of what is making life so crazy in our world right now.

But there is another voice in us: a deep, resonant undertone that brings us back to our true self and into harmony with all of creation. That is the voice of God. I believe that this voice speaks to us in every moment of our life – it is just hard to hear with all the distractions of modern times.

So my question this morning is a simple one. How could you as parents, godparents, grandparents, friends and ordinary people help others, especially children, to hear the voice of the Lord? Let me suggest three things you might teach by word and example that will help us hear God.

  1. First, teach yourself, and each other, to pray. People ask me what prayer is and how to do it. All prayer begins with desire, with what Barry and Ann Ulanov call an “affectionate reaching out to God.”[2] In today’s psalm (Ps. 29), “the voice of the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” It “breaks the cedar trees… and makes the oak trees writhe.” “The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire” (Ps. 29). I find God in the vast Pacific Ocean, among the Monterey Cypress trees at Land’s End, and in moments like this when we are together and the light streams through the stained glass windows.

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) said that prayer is the only way to really know God. You can read about God in the Bible or through great spiritual writers, but you actually meet God in prayer. For that matter it is also how we begin to really know ourselves. Prayer may be the moment when we come closest to saying who we really are – not who we should be or who we would wish to be, but who we really are. In prayer I am often surprised to discover what it is I really want.

In his autobiography St. Augustine (354-430) writes that we have deep drives that scatter us and even distort our lives through unhealthy addictions and compulsive behavior. Prayer helps to shape these desires for good.[3] Prayer gives us an enlarged sense of self. It helps us to see other perspectives. And ultimately we discover that what we thought was our seeking turns out to be responding to the Other, to God, who first sought us.

So make prayer a normal thing in your house and for the people around you. Pray before bed, at meals, in moments of spontaneous disappointment or appreciation. This week for homework try praying at a time that you ordinarily would not. Listen for that voice singing beneath all creation and know yourself better as a result.

  1. My second suggestion for hearing God is to cultivate humility. By this I do not mean the false humility of people who try to pretend that they are not good at something when they really are. I mean the spiritual humility required to be a humane person. This is the humility of being at home in one’s own skin. It is what we see in people who do not need to feel like they are better than others, because they have already been accepted by God.

This week in The New York Times, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, David Bentlely Hart, discussed his experience writing about hell. He says that the scriptural evidence is thin for the later church’s picture of an eternal, permanent place where souls are tormented. The Apostle Paul does not mention it and many New Testament passages appear to suggest that everyone will be eventually saved by God. Great Christian thinkers through the ages including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others all the way to Karl Barth in the twentieth century have argued that it is impossible for anything to resist God’s love indefinitely, or for there to be a place beyond the reach of God’s compassion. Hart suggests that the idea of hell became a more powerful force for the purpose of controlling ordinary people after the Roman Empire embraced Christianity.[4]

But this isn’t Hart’s main point. He said that of all he has written over time, this position generates the most controversy. You would think that it might be a relief to hear that no one would be subjected to everlasting torture. But this is not the case. People are attached to the idea of hell and this is why. Because we have a hard time letting go of our deep need to be vindicated, to be right, to be superior over others. We carry a little hell within us when in our competitiveness we cannot imagine being considered good unless someone else else is bad, that we cannot succeed unless they fail.

I want to share one more example because humility is both so central to the Christian life and at the same time so hard to understand today. This fall at the age of 52, James Hatch a former Navy SEAL and combat-wounded veteran, started his freshman year at Yale College.[5]

From social media he heard that he could expect to meet “snowflakes” there. For those of you who haven’t heard this expression, a snowflake is a word that people use to describe someone “who thinks he or she is unique and special when that person is not.” His friends sometimes wondered what college with the liberal snowflakes was like and so he wrote an article to describe his experience.

Hatch described amazing personal stories of resilient young people working on Alaska fishing boats, dedicating days to solving intricate math problems, composing music for the cello. At first he hated the way they talked about safe spaces. But then he realized that what this really means is a place where difficult subjects can be discussed openly without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment. He instantly understood that almost everyone resists bringing their ideas into environments where people would disagree with them. And yet that this was the only way to make progress on humanity’s most challenging problems.

Bridges is our Cathedral theme this year. And Hatch writes that a good leader is a bridge builder. Someone who is confident enough to recognize that they could be wrong who actively reaches out to hear other views than one’s own. To completely realize that God accepts us and the power that comes with this is humility.

  1. This brings me to the final lesson. This is what we should always be teaching to everyone around us. It is so simple. The word Gospel means good news. And the good news of Jesus is easy to understand. At his baptism God’s voice speaks from heaven and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3). The Good News of Jesus is that each person is loved by God. God loves us so profoundly that nothing can keep God from reaching us – not even death.

This is what I have been thinking about in the days since Elizabeth’s funeral as I prepared for the moment of joy we are sharing today. There is another voice in us: a deep, resonant undertone that brings us back to our true self and into harmony with all of creation. That is the voice of God. I believe that this voice speaks to us in every moment of our life.

What will you do to help the people around you to hear the voice of God?

 

[1] Karen Zraic, “Teenagers Say Depression and Anxiety Are the Major Issues Among Their Peers,” The New York Times, 20 Feb 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/20/health/teenage-depression-statistics.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] The observation about prayer as desire, Husserl, etc. come from the following. Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982) 1, 8.

[3] Augustine, Confessions Tr. Rex Warner (NY: New American Library, 1963).

[4] David Bentley Hart, “Why Do People Believe in Hell?, The New York Times, 10 January 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/opinion/sunday/christianity-religion-hell-bible.html

[5] James Hatch, “My Semester with the Snowflakes,” Medium, 21 December 2019. https://gen.medium.com/my-semester-with-the-snowflakes-888285f0e662

Sunday, January 5
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Canon Jude Harmon
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Sunday, December 29
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Heather Erickson
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Wednesday, December 25
Christmas Day Sermon
Preacher: The Rev. Kristin Saylor
Sermon from the Christmas 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Tuesday, December 24
Joy in the Darkness
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass Sermon
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Watch:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9).

How can we find joy even in the darkness? The temperatures on the morning of December 22, 1998 were in the sixties with intermittent blasts of spring rain. I watched the showers from the long windows of Harvard’s Lamont library. Walking back to the apartment at lunchtime the weather changed back to winter. I called my wife Heidi at her office and interrupted her small talk with my insistent question, “What did the doctor say?” She said, “I’m pregnant.” There is absolutely no way to express my joy.

I rushed to her downtown office. I went into the subway as one kind of person and came out the other end as something totally different. Every individual and object seemed to shine with astonishing beauty. In her office Heidi and I embraced immediately. We only let each other go in order to call everyone we knew. That Christmas, God felt so near at every moment. God seemed to rejoice with and in me.

It is one thing to experience a flash of awe when you see a sunset through the pines on a high Sierra lake, or when the light filters through the stained glass of a great cathedral and you sense the presence of the people who walked here before you, or when the closing chords of a symphony sound like heaven.

It is another thing to have a personal experience of God – not as an idea, not as a force in the way we talk about “the universe” causing some unlikely event, not as an aloof creator who made everything and leaves us to our own devices. But God as a person who cares about this world, who hears our prayers and seeks connection with us. A God who forgives. Whatever you may think on an ordinary day I encourage you to try this view on for tonight.

For me this is the heart of the Christmas story. God does not want to just listen from a distance, but to be personally involved in our life. God does this because we walk in darkness and so obviously need help. And so at Christmas, God does not blast away all the enemies of the good, but steps into history and overturns the rules of the social order by being born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough. Tonight we celebrate what Ephrem of Syria (306-373) in the fourth century calls the, “baby who holds the reins of the universe.” Or in the words of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the moment when, “the hands that made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of cattle.”[1]

At the end of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) book Critique of Pure Reason he argues that philosophy seeks to answer three questions: What can I know? What should I do? And what may I hope?[2] These questions help me to understand joy.

  1. What can we know? At the age of twelve, in confirmation class, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson lost his faith. The other kids there were not cool and the minister did not give a very convincing answer when Peterson asked him to reconcile the Bible’s creation stories with science. He rejected religion as something for weak, ignorant and superstitious people.[3]

Peterson took all that youthful energy and threw it behind utopian visions of economic redistribution. He got involved in student government and the socialist party. But over time he began to see that the world was far more complex. He lost this new form of fervently held faith when he realized that he and his fellow socialists did not really like the poor that much after all.

Not long after this Peterson began having terrible nightmares that continued to haunt him during the daytime. He kept dreaming about nuclear apocalypse. In one dream his beautiful cousin was electrocuted in the basement. He ran upstairs to witness the horrifying destruction of his entire hometown. The dreams had power. Peterson became anxious and very depressed until religion saved his life.

Studying Carl Jung (1875-1961) he began to understand that our world is a place of things best explained by scientific methods. But the world is also a forum for action where we have values, set goals and accomplish aims. This subjective element lies at the heart of our experience. It is the world of the stories and symbols that orient our lives.

Perhaps the symbol that matters to us most is what Jung calls our persona, the way we appear to others and to ourselves. Jung writes, “When we analyse the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective, in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a [person] appears to be.”[4]

Let me be clear. Even the symbol that is us comes from a kind of tension between social forces and personal drives. This means that even what is closest to us remains a kind of mystery to our conscious thought. We do not have direct access even to who we are. That’s what we know.

  1. My second question is “What should we do?” You are a kind of symbol to yourself. Christ is a symbol in a similar kind of way. You might think of Jesus as having a mission to change our pictures of ourselves, to become real children of God, working for the sake of God’s realm of peace and justice.

Our Cathedral theme this year has been “the Body” and people have been asking me what I learned. We talked about the bodies of people who were detained at the border or in prison. We discussed healthcare, inequality, aging, pain but also pleasure. And this is what I learned. Jesus did not come here to leave us something to think about. He gives us concrete things to do, ways of being in our body with other bodies.

Jesus did not spend his last night on earth quizzing his disciples about what they should believe. Instead he taught them to wash each other’s feet, to share a meal, to explore a way of being in which the greatest leader acts as servant of all. Jesus doesn’t say “believe this in remembrance of me.” He says, “do this in remembrance of me.”[5]

We have a hard time hearing the truth of the Christmas story because it has become so overlaid with nostalgia and sentimentality. Really it is a story about two ways of existing that are still at total war with each other. On the one hand you have the arrogance of the Emperor’s decree “that all the world should be registered.” When you hear this you should think of – inescapable surveillance technology, cell phone location data, facial recognition cameras, disinformation campaigns, targeted killings and secret police – the apparatus that makes it possible for the state to punish all dissent. You should think of paying taxes that fund the brutal armies that torture you.

In contrast to this we have a child, from God and with God, born as a poor refugee in a barn. Invisible to the empire but recognized by the homeless, uncounted, undocumented shepherds abiding in the fields. An angelic army offers this counter-decree to them, “bringing good news of great joy for all people… to you is born… the Messiah” (Lk. 2).

Here we have: the Roman Emperor Augustus and the baby Jesus. Two individuals inhabiting totally different worlds with two conflicting stories about what is real. What should we do? Act. Act out of desire not for power but love. Share a holy meal. Care for each other.[6]

  1. My final question is what should we hope? The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) points out that at its heart “life is movement in time.” We are continually desiring, striving to reach our goals and guided by ideas, relationships, obligations and hopes. For Barth, joy happens when this movement is stopped by something unexpected. It is a moment of stillness when our life ceases to have a goal and just becomes a gift.

We dream of this genuine life. And in holy moments, like tonight, we experience it. Barth writes, “Joy is really the simplest form of gratitude.” He also says, “We can close ourselves off to joy. We can harden ourselves against it. We can be caught in the rut of life in movement. We can try to be merely busy.”[7]

Barth goes on, “To be joyful is to expect that life will reveal itself as God’s gift of grace.” We cannot force joy to happen but we can stay open to it through prayer, worship and caring for others. These actions open a door for us to step out of time and into joy.

How can we find joy in the darkness? What can we know? We will always be a mystery to ourselves. This is a world of things, but it is also a world of ideas, goals, values, desires and the symbols that reveal these forces to us. What should we do? We need to worry less about thinking the right thoughts and more about how we treat each other’s bodies. As the powers of authoritarianism rises with new technologies and a changing culture, we need to choose Christ’s path of love, vulnerability and involvement.

What should we hope? That we will not be “merely busy” but always ready to receive the gift of our life from God. Let joy which is gratitude remain at the heart of our life and all the stories we tell about it. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9). “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born… the Messiah” (Lk. 2). Merry Christmas!

 

[1] Carol Zeleski, “Christmas Wrappings: A Time for Holy Foolishness,” The Christian Century 27 December 2005.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Unabridged Edition,  Tr. Norman Kemp Smith (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965) 635.

[3] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (NY: Routledge, 1999) xi-xxii.

[4] Carl Jung, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol 7. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Tr. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton NJ: Princeton University, Bollingen Press, 1970) 158. (Cited in Peterson, xvii).

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Our Bodies, Our Faith: Practicing Incarnation,” The Christian Century, 27 January 2009.

[6] Matthew Boulton, “Re-thinking Christmas Eve,” SALT, 23 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/23/rethinking-christmas-eve

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 The Doctrine of Creation. Tr. A. T. MacKay, T. H. L. Parker, H. Knight, H. A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T & T Clark, 1961) 376-9. In Barth’s words, “Life smiles at [us], not scornfully and ironically as it sometimes can do but with friendliness, not as something unknown but in some sense well-known, because he has always meant it to turn out like this… Joy is really the simplest form of gratitude…”

 

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