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Sunday, December 8
Sunday 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, December 5
Thursday 5:15 p.m. Evensong
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Sunday, December 1
The Advent Procession
First Sunday of Advent 3 p.m. Procession
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Sunday, December 8
Decolonize Your Mind!
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).
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“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

What is the good news of John the Baptist?

  1. In every conversation lies an implicit promise that we will be informed, entertained, expanded, perhaps even appreciated, loved or saved. But this is not always how things work out. This week I found myself at the most elegant Christmas party of my life. Original paintings by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), James Tissot (1836-1902), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), René Magritte (1898-1967), David Hockney (1937-) and others surrounded the guests in every room. Near the end, feeling exhausted, I took refuge alone on a sofa in the front room when a gracious older man approached and asked if he could sit with me.

He seemed so familiar! We talked as if we had been loosely acquainted for years.[1] And then he told me this story about when he served as a community liaison for the police force and Jim Jones, the charismatic cult leader, invited him to Sunday worship.

Jim Jones told him the time to be there and the uniform he should wear. When my friend arrived Jones had two hulking bodyguards with him. He never took off his sun glasses and looked away at the wall as they talked. After the police officer gave his lecture to a thousand people in the congregation he sat enjoying the choir. Although the service wasn’t over and he wanted to stay, the two bodyguards flatly told him it was time to leave. My friend didn’t know what to do but really he had no alternative.

That week someone else who had been there told him what happened after he left. Jim Jones took the stage and told his followers, “Did you see that police officer, he came when I told him to come, wore what I told him to wear and left when I told him to go. Stay with me because I have power.” Within a couple of years Jones murdered 918 people in Guyana. My new friend wonders how many of them were at church with him that day.

  1. So what is the difference between John the Baptist and the cult leader Jim Jones (1931-1978)? At first the two might seem to have a similar image and message. Depictions of John the Baptist in this Cathedral and elsewhere often make him seem angry and unstable. For centuries the most identifying features of John have been his uncombed hair and rough clothes. In the Willets stained glass window John seems to be shouting as a lightning bolt strikes from heaven.

John exclaims, “You brood of vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” And we feel condemned. As the axe lies “at the root of the trees” we might even worry that we have the “unquenchable fire” as our destiny (Mt. 3).

This is the second week of the new Christian year. For the next twelve months on Sundays we will read through the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew cares about faithful Jewish people. He constantly tries to show us how Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. The word gospel means “good news” and the point of this art form, of these stories, is not to record ancient history. It is to provoke us to really see.

John the Baptist’s camel hair clothing and leather belt, his life in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey – these identify him with the prophet Elijah and Isaiah’s promise of a time when the “earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11).

Jim Jones ruled through fear, intimidation and violence – a more extreme version of what we experience in the news from leaders every day. In contrast, John the Baptist offers the opposite. He gives us an inclusive vision of hope for all people. We have the chance to experience lasting joy and he doesn’t want us to squander this opportunity.

Every time a word is used its meaning becomes slightly altered. You can see this when we repeat something that has already been said. Words change meaning. They also wear out over time. “Awesome” used to be a serious word with religious content before it became a meaningless cliché.  The most important word for Matthew in this passage and perhaps even the whole gospel is the Greek word metanoia. It means to change your mind or soul, to be transformed. The worn out Christian word for this is “repentance.”

John the Baptist isn’t scolding us, or imploring us to be good, like some finger-wagging Puritan. John wants to change our entire orientation to the world. We are in chains and John wants to set us free. He wants to free our minds.

Let me point out three signs of hope in his message. First, this is a radically open invitation. He addresses everyone. Each person has dignity and he baptizes Jew and non-Jew alike. With even the temple leaders everyone flocks to the wilderness to see him. He says your race, nationality, religion is not the most important thing about you. Not being related to Abraham will not hold you back when it comes to God.

Second he says that everyone has a chance, because this is not about our identity: who our father was, or our income, status, political party, race, etc. What matters is the fruit that our lives bear. This is simple. Do our actions lead to indifference, violence, manipulation and destruction or to love, healing and wholeness?

Finally, comes the most difficult part to explain. Because identity matters so much to us we feel a stubborn compulsion to misinterpret John’s most frightening metaphor about the wheat and chaff. This is not a metaphor about righteous or evil groups. John does not mean that some people are valuable and should be gathered into the warm barn while others deserve to burn. He is using a metaphor of purification. The fire is a refining fire that burns away impurities. The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) writes that the line between good and evil does not run between various groups of people but through every human heart.[2]

We all have a kernel of goodness, wisdom, bravery and value that deserves to last forever. We also all have imperfections in our character that are fundamentally incompatible with life in God. We know what impurities need to be rooted out of our lives: the hounding negativity, unkindness, anxiety, self-centeredness, indifference, insecurity, greed and fear of those who are different. This chaff exists in every human soul. It includes the bitterness of homophobia, entrenched white supremacy, persistent misogyny.

  1. So instead of that old language we hear from street preachers about repentance, listen this morning as John invites you to decolonize your mind. I have learned so much on this subject from the Kenyan author Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o (1938-). Ngūgī grew up in a Kenyan household with a father, four wives and about twenty-eight children. They spoke Gīkūyū as they worked in the fields and around the home. Before attending school he inhabited a harmonious world held together as all are by stories.

Ngūgī writes that English was more than just a language it became the language. If children spoke their own language in the vicinity of school they were beaten, fined money that they didn’t have or made to carry a metal plate around their necks that said, “I am stupid.”[3]

Ngugi writes that the “real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life.” This comes about through what he calls “the cultural bomb” whose effect is to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as a wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.” [4]

Hawaiians had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world during the 1800’s. But then after Americans criminally overthrew the government it became similarly illegal to teach the Hawaiian language in schools. For three generations local people say the “white is right” movement dominated official culture. If you are my age and native Hawaiian you are very likely to have been entirely cut off from your own language, cultural practices and a large part of your own self. Ngūgī says it is like being made to stand outside yourself to understand yourself. Being a Christian today is a little like this. You can’t help but feel such hope for the new generation coming of age in Hawaiian immersion schools.

Here in North America if you are a gay man, you have to struggle so that our culture’s demeaning and dehumanizing stereotypes do not remain part of your picture of yourself. This is true of white supremacy and misogyny too. These demonic pictures distort our inner landscapes. They divide us from each other and from God. They are the chaff in every person’s heart that needs to be incinerated by the Holy Spirit so that we can be our truer selves.

In every conversation lies an implicit promise. At the party I gradually recognized that I was talking to Frank Jordan. He served as mayor of San Francisco in the 1990’s when my wife and I first moved here. In that conversation his humility and graciousness showed me he didn’t need to belittle others for the sake of his ego.

About one quarter of the New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul. You might say that his whole message can be boiled down to this statement. In the impenetrable ambiguity of human life when we seem like slaves of the messages that we hear, God offers us freedom from our compulsive preoccupation with human authority.[5]

It is time. It is time for the earth to be full of the knowledge of the Lord. It is time to decolonize our faith and free our minds. And that is the good news of John the Baptist. “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing…” (Romans 15).

[1] He told me about growing up south of Market Street, joining the San Francisco Police Department about the Season of the Witch years in the 1970’s when mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by their colleague Dan White.

[2] Matt Boulton, “Change Your Mind: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on Advent Week Two,” SALT, 3 December 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/12/3/change-your-mind-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-advent-week-two

[3] Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann Kenya, 1988) 11.

[4] Children growing up in this setting “exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world external to [themselves]… being made to stand outside of [themselves] to look at [themselves].”  Ibid., 16, 3.

[5] “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV).

Sunday, December 1
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, November 3
Reality Beyond this Dream
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“See I am making all things new” (Revelation 21).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

2 Ibid., 292.

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

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

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

6 Ibid., 19-21.

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

Sunday, October 27
Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus
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Wednesday, October 23
Purgatorio
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17).

What is purgatory? What can we learn from the idea of purgatory about our human condition?

The American philosopher William James (1842-1910) had various theories about the influence of an individual’s temperament on his or her picture of the world. He took it for granted that human beings have many different perspectives on what is real. For him truth is a kind of amalgamation of our various viewpoints which come out of how we make use of ideas. In this sense, for James truth is a social reality.

In his essay “Herbert Spencer” James contrasts idealism with materialism. Idealism comes from a temperament which embraces a sense of intimacy with the universe and the feeling of connection to “the all.” For people with a materialistic this view feels like a “close sick-room.” They prefer to see the world as “uncertain, dangerous and wild,” a universe that “has no respect for [the human] ego.” James finds himself between these two temperaments. He feels the intimacy but also recognizes the wildness of our life.[1]

When you read what Christians have said about purgatory you cannot help but come to conclusions about the relation between this idea and the personalities of the writers. The debate about purgatory is a study of a certain kind of human mind seeking satisfaction for a persisting question. It involves a yearning for a kind of consistency, a reconciliation of ideas that at first seem to be in conflict.

The idea of purgatory is simple. Purgatory is a state or place of purification experienced after death. Upon death we are not yet ready to be in the presence of pure holiness. Purgatory is the place of preparation for an encounter with the absolute purity of God. Purgatory explains why it makes sense to pray for people who have died. It probably also has to do with justice. In this life people do not universally seem to suffer as a result of their wrong doing. Purgatory satisfies our deep yearning for fairness.

In its current form what we think of as purgatory really comes to us from the twelfth century. As Europeans were inventing the university, ideas about purgatory began to take hold. However from before the birth of Jesus religious people have used metaphors of purification by fire.

There really is no clear reference to purgatory in the Bible. The Bible does not specify what exactly happens when we die. Jesus promises, “in my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you (Jn. 14:2)?

The Book of Maccabees tells the story of Jewish uprisings against Rome in the century before Jesus’ birth. Most Protestant churches do not accept The Book of Maccabees as part of the Bible. Roman Catholics however often refer to it as a source for understanding what purgatory means.[2] When Judas Maccabeus examined the bodies of his men who were killed in battle he discovers that they had all been carrying idolatrous amulets. Roman Catholics theologians reason that when Judas takes up a collection and prays for the dead it would have to mean that they had not yet entered fully into God.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:11-15)  he uses a building metaphor to describe our spiritual life. The foundation of our works in Christ Jesus is built on gold, silver, precious stones, wood and hay stubble. Paul then writes that this will be tested by fire. For Roman Catholics this is a metaphorical description of purgatory. For them this testing by fire is what happens after we die.

In the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 12:32) Jesus says that whoever speaks against the Son will be forgiven but speaking against the Holy Spirit, “shall not be forgiven… neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” Christians have debated endlessly about what this sin against the Holy Spirit could be. Some believe that this reference to the “world to come” refers to purgatory.

Among the earliest Christian writings (The Church Fathers and Mothers) we find mention of prayers for the dead and purification by fire. Origen writes that a person who has less consequential sins will experience fire that burns them away.[3]

 

One of the primary issues of contention during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century concerned the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. The idea that living people could help the dead by acts of piety or generosity led to abuses by the church. Reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) hated this and condemned the idea of purgatory as lacking a basis in the Bible.

John Calvin cared more than anything else about the sovereignty of God, that we are helpless, that only Christ’s death and resurrection can save us. The idea that a dead person’s salvation might somehow depend on something that we ourselves do was deeply upsetting to him. Calvin writes, “Therefore, we must cry out with the shouting not only with our voices but of our throats and lungs that purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ.”[4]

In the “Articles of Religion” found in the Historical Documents section of our prayerbook there is a similar statement. Article XXII “Of Purgatory” says, “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”[5]

I began by talking about how our disposition can shape our philosophy or theology. What kind of person is attracted to this idea of a state or place for purification? First, I think this would be someone who cares about purity – God’s and ours. Second, this teaching might be important for those who feel a deep and abiding passion for justice, who feel appalled by the way cruelty sometimes seems rewarded in this life. Finally, I also think that people want a way to understand the value of their prayers for beloved ones who have died.

You may be wondering where I stand on all this. Our life is so filled with mystery. Why are we so moved by the first soft light of the day on a jet plane flying a thousand feet above the city, or the sense of infinity that confronts us at Ocean Beach, or the people I meet as I ride my bike through the city? How can we ever understand what it means to really return home to God? The answer of course is through metaphors and stories.

Let me tell you two things about my personality. First, I am a skeptical person. If God is God, there is no way that we will completely understand. I think so often about our little dog Poppy. She notices and experiences things that I cannot hope to see. I talk to her but she would have no idea what it means for me to say that I am going to go vote, for instance. How could we possibly understand God when we can’t even understand ourselves?

The second thing is that I deeply trust in God. We encounter God in our daily life, when we pray, in unexpected meetings with other people and here at Grace Cathedral. We know what God wants for us through Jesus the Son of God. His teachings and centuries of tradition help us to see what God means to us, and what our responsibilities to God are.

I pray for the dead because I love them and feel a sense of connection to them in God.[6] I trust that nothing I have done or thought or been will ever keep me from the love of God. I don’t know what it will be like but when my days in this world are over but as I pass through the gateway of death I expect to see the one who is my friend and who has accompanied me all this way.

 

[1] Goodman, Russell, “William James”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/james/>.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, 268-9.

[3] Edward Hanna, “Purgatory.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).  23 Oct. 2019<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm>.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes 3.5.6 (Battle, vol. 1, 676).

[5] Book of Common Prayer, 872.

[6] The Episcopal Catechism says, “Q: Why do we pray for the dead? A: We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.” Book of Common Prayer, 862.

Sunday, October 20
Privilege
Preacher: The Rev. Maryetta M. Anschutz
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Sunday, October 13
Why Worship?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17).

  1. Why is it important to go to church? Why do we worship God? We know the answer to this question in an instinctual and subconscious way. But if we are going to talk to anyone about what really matters to us we need to put this into words.

We should be able to talk about why faith matters today as Turkish forces kill our former allies in Northern Syria, as the branches of federal government war against each other, as rolling power outages somehow surprise us into remembering that humans are altering the climate in every place on the planet. Jesus in the Gospel of Luke says a great deal about faith.

In today’s Gospel Jesus travels the last part of his journey to Jerusalem. At the beginning of this trip Jesus and his friends were refused hospitality in a Samaritan village (Lk. 9:51-56). In their humiliation and anger the disciples said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus reprimands them. Obviously they have a long way to go. Worship is not about setting apart good people like us from bad people like them.

Jesus got into trouble in his hometown when he said this at the beginning of his public ministry. That day in the synagogue Jesus alluded to a story about how the prophet Elijah healed Naaman, a foreign general suffering from leprosy. The crowd became so angry that they tried to kill him (Lk. 4). For Jesus worship and faith are not primarily about national or religious identity.

Jesus is clear about this and frequently refers in positive terms to the people his wn nation regard as the enemy – the Samaritans. Who are the Samaritans? They are the northern people who are descendants of intermarriage between Jews who were left behind after elites were exiled in Babylon and the conquering Assyrian invaders. Samaritans shared a similar culture and even some overlapping scripture but worship in a different temple. Although the Samaritans and Jews seem to share so much, the two peoples regarded each other as enemies.[1]

The comedian Trevor Noah in his autobiography Born a Crime points out how our worst conflicts are not with people who we see as completely different from us. We have our most bitter disagreements with people who are somewhat similar but who we perceive as having somehow betrayed our basic principles. This dynamic characterized the situation when Anglicans in Africa condemned the American church for embracing LGBTQ people ten years ago. Our similarities made it a hotter conflict than if we had been completely different.

  1. In the Gospel of Luke As Jesus passes through the borderland between Samaria and Galilee, between his ministry in the countryside and the temple, ten lepers come to meet him. Keeping with the normal practice these outcasts stop at a distance from Jesus and lifting up their voices they call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk. 17). Jesus tells them to go to the temple and present themselves to the priest. As they go they are healed. Nine of them go on but one audacious Samaritan who has been ostracized and cast out does something remarkable. He praises God, comes right up to Jesus, throws himself on the ground and thanks him.

Before we go further I want to point out something that is easy to miss. This language of turning and praising God comes up at important points in the Gospel of Luke as an indicator of faith. At the birth of Jesus, after meeting the holy family, the shepherds “returned glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20). Then at the very end of the Gospel the disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Lk. 24).

This turning and praising God are also what set this foreigner apart. Jesus points out that the others did not return and give praise to God. Jesus seems moved by this courageous Samaritan. He says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Lk. 17).

All ten lepers heard Jesus’ instructions. They trusted him and obeyed. But faith is more than hearing, trusting, obeying or even receiving God’s healing. It has something to do with returning and praising God.

  1. Many of us have memorized the summary of faith. We call it the Great Commandment and inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters (Deut. 6:5ff). It has two dimensions. The first is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” And the second dimension is that we are to love our neighbor as we love our selves (Lk. 10:27).

When a young lawyer asks Jesus what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. You remember it. A man is beaten nearly to death by thieves and left by the roadside. His people’s religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road. But the one who his people regard as an enemy, a Samaritan, picks him up and nurses him back to health. A neighbor is one who risks crossing social boundaries to help. In this way Jesus explains the second dimension of the Great Commandment.

If the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ explanation of the second dimension, this story of the Thankful Samaritan is his answer to the first dimension of loving God. We probably hear about the Good Samaritan more often because we live in a society that at some level recognizes the importance of helping our neighbor even if we mostly fail to do it. In modern San Francisco there are plenty of people who would encourage us to be merciful or kind to our neighbor, but far fewer who see why worship, gratitude or praise for God matter.

Many don’t believe in God. They might say that God does not need our prayers. So why do we worship? Why should we return and praise God? For many years psychologists mostly studied various forms of illness. About twenty years ago psychologists like Dacher Keltner in Berekeley began studying happiness more closely.[2] One of their primary conclusions is that happiness and gratitude are intimately connected. In some senses we were created to give thanks. It is our nature to glorify God if you will.

My friend Matt Boulton explains it this way.[3] Imagine a child receiving a meal as a gift prepared by her parents. She might consume it simply as fuel, or take it for granted as a privilege. It might be a matter chiefly of sensual pleasure for her. It might be all of this at once. But if that is it, she has missed something essential. She has not received the gift. She does not understand what really happened.

It is only when she recognizes the meal as a gift and thanks her parents for it, that it becomes what it really is – a blessing for her. Her thanks is part of receiving the gift and understanding their love. It completes the gift, it makes the gift what it really is. Matt says that, “gratitude is the natural echo of grace.”

And that is why we worship. We have received our existence as a gift and it becomes more complete in our recognition of this truth, in returning and praising God. The theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes that keeping the Sabbath day, honoring God in church has two benefits.[4]

First, it allows us to be free from our selves, to rejoice and be in God. If you work a hundred hours a week at Facebook Mark Zuckerberg in effect becomes your god. If you work for yourself you make yourself a kind of god. The Sabbath reminds us that we cannot trust in our own powers but only in the God who is for us. Church helps us know ourselves not in what we do, but through our faith in God.

Second, keeping a holy day, participating in church makes us free for God. It gives us a chance to hear God’s Word and understand what it means for us. Martin Luther writes that the Word of God is a sanctuary above all sanctuaries. Through it Jesus shows us that we are God’s beloved children.

Barth points out that some people say that they find God on the golf course, in nature, a museum, reading a good book or attending the symphony. But all of these are forms of escape. When you come to church you are not merely a passive listener. You become part of this community that God has gathered. Look around you. You didn’t choose these people. God did. Coming here you make yourself open not just to God but to unpredictable contact with others. This experience of worship will change who you are all week long.

Yesterday we had the funeral for Dr. Ron Johnson who has exemplified this ideal of joy and worship and community more than almost anyone. He was the gate of love through which many of us arrived here and the gate of compassion for countless people who died of AIDS. A few weeks ago I saw him. He radiated joy from his deathbed. He said he felt ready to be with God. Deeper than word in his smile I dropped into a mystical understanding of how much Dr. J loves us.

Why do we go to church? We know the answer to this question. At some level we understand the lesson of both the Good Samaritan and the Thankful Samaritan. We come here because living is more than breathing and eating and being respected by others. We come here because we depend on God’s love, because we long to experience the joy of being fully alive. We were made for gratitude. The gift of our life becomes more complete when we rejoice and thank our creator for it. So let us turn and praise God.

 

[1] A great deal of this sermon comes from Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/10/8/thanking-is-believing-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-eighteenth-week-after-pentecost

[2] Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (NY: Norton, 2009).

[3] Matt Boulton, “Thanking is Believing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for the Eighteenth Week After Pentecost,” SALT, 8 October 2019.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4: The Doctrine of Creation tr. A.T. Mckay, T.H.L. Parker, H Knight, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks (NY: T & T Clark, 1961) 47-72.

Sunday, October 6
Francis and the Dream of Chivalry
Preacher: Brother Desmond Alban
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‘Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born King of all Britain.’

 I am very grateful to have been invited back to Grace Cathedral this morning just a day after a celebration here of the 100th Anniversary of Franciscan friars in the Episcopal Church.  But why, on this St Francis Sunday, am I opening, not with the scripture, or a quotation from Saintt Francis, or from our own founder Father Joseph, but with a snippet of British folklore?

I was probably about 10 or 11 years old when TH White’s story of Britain’s mythical Once and Future King became my favorite childhood book.  That my middle name, Arthur, was shared by its hero added to the magic.  About the same time, a slim volume of prayers passed on to me by my lay preacher father, introduced me to the magnetic attraction of Saint Francis of Assisi.  This was also, roughly, the close of an era in my life when my otherwise positive school report cards tended to lament a propensity for daydreaming.   

There is a lot more to Francis than birdbaths, animal stories and the words of a beautiful Peace Prayer which, though true to his spirit, he certainly didn’t write.  It is a shame that some of the things he actually did say or write are not better known.    But one remarkable discovery for me as I began to learn more of the lesser-known Francis, was that he and I shared a common subject matter for our childhood dreaming! We both loved the world of true-born kings, knights, minstrels, heralds and heroic quests.  The writings of Francis bear direct witness at certain points to the inspiration he found in the legend of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as do his early biographers.  Francis’ life reminds us that God can speak to us in our dreams and visions, both literal and metaphorical.  But it reminds us too of the power of the Gospel to transform and rework those dreams in ways that we might never imagine.

A statue of St Francis outside his basilica in Assisi can rather surprise the casual pilgrim.  It does not portray him as the famous, charismatic friar.  Nor is this the fashionably well-dressed youth who was the heart and soul of the of parties of his age-group and social class.  And this is not the young warrior who once set out proudly from Assisi with the best armor and attire that money could buy.  That had happened in Italy in 1204 or 5, not of course in the England of the 1970s, and the dream of actually becoming a knight was for him a credible one.  Francis set out to join the forces of Count Gentile of Manipullo, fighting for the noble cause of the Pope against the Emperor, and it was actually feasible that if he had acquitted himself well he might have been made a knight by the Count, right there on the field of battle.   In a sign, however, of the traits that had always been present in the character of this young man, when he had found an actual knight, but one shabbily and shoddily equipped, Francis had given away his own armor and finery.  Subsequently in two night-time dreams in the city of Spoleto, Francis had received, first, what he thought was a glorious confirmation of all that he had dreamed of ever since he learned the French ballads that told these tales of chivalry: a dream of Francis himself, feasting in a fine castle with knights that were somehow his knights.  But the second dream challenged him to a radical reinterpretation of what that glory and call really was, a challenge to let go of all that he thought was his deepest desire and hope for his future.  The statue depicts Francis returning to Assisi having never reached the battlefield, slumped over on his horse, lacking the finery with which he had set out, returning covered not with glory but with confusion and bewilderment, engaged in a process of  radical disillusionment, the literal loss of an illusion that had been cheered by his family and friends as he had set out earlier.

That was just one of a series of incidents that turned Francis’ life upside down.  But through them all, he began to realize that the fashionable ideal of knightly chivalry that had gripped the wealthy young men of Europe was a poor shadow of a far greater spiritual reality.  According to the modern Franciscan author, Brother Mark of Whitstable, Francis ‘re-invented the ideal of chivalry through a kind of inversion’.  Feudal pride was subsumed by the ideal of humility.  Knightly quests were replaced by long and hazardous journeys across Europe preaching the gospel.  The sword was displaced by a message of peace and reconciliation. And the very status of knighthood itself gave way to Francis and his brothers calling themselves the Friars Minor or Lesser Brothers, identifying themselves firmly with the underclass, the minore of medieval Italy.  Unlike the rich young man in our Gospel, who turned away from the call of Jesus with such sadness, the rich young man of Assisi found perfect joy in giving away everything to live in the freedom of the gospel.

Now part of the attraction of the legend of King Arthur, for me as for Francis, was the fellowship of the Round Table, the wonderful solidarity of those brothers in arms, celebrating the heroic deeds of each and all, holding one another in mutual honor and respect.  But what a limited fraternity, not least in the restricted, gendered sense of that term!  In English at least, it is very difficult to find a truly inclusive term for a concept like Fraternity or Sorority.   By the end of his life Francis’ vision of who, or what was his Sister or Brother had expanded to include… everything.  Not just those close to him or sharing a faith with him.  Not just human beings.  Not even just animals.  It is appropriate that we honor the Christ-light in animals by bringing them to Church today for a blessing, but not only because there are some cute stories about Saint Francis and the animals.  For some years as a Brother I had on my wall poster that had been issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, portraying a kind of evolutionary family tree linking the whole variety of animal and plant life.   It became the subject of contemplative reflection for me.  I believe Saint Francis would have loved the theory of Evolution, once he’d got over the shock of it.  All living things really are, in effect, sisters and brothers.  My own scientific field was not biology – I used to teach High School Physics and Astronomy – but many who have followed Francis, especially those writing today, have explored our connection, our common origins, not only with all living things but in stars and galaxies as well as the connectedness of the tiniest particles in the quantum behavior of matter itself.  Francis himself, writing in the last years of his life recognized not only living things as his sisters and brothers but also Mother Earth, Brother Sun, Sister Water, Brother Fire, even Sister Death.  His great poem – the first to be written in vernacular Italian – is best known in English as the hymn All Creatures of our God and King.  The relevance to our present world crisis needs no further exposition.

But loving Christ in the whole created order is sometimes easier than loving other people! That is why I also want to highlight one other incident in the life of Francis, one that took place a few years before the end of his life, and one that is again highly relevant to the social and political currents of our present culture.

One truly terrible consequence, in part perhaps, of the idolization of chivalry in the time of Francis, was the appalling ideology of the Christian Crusades.  But these terrible events provided the context for one of the most significant quests of Francis’ transformed chivalry – and one that illustrates how having your dreams challenged and reformed, is not something that happens just once, but is rather an ongoing process.

When Francis arrived in a Crusader Camp in Egypt in 1219, he did not do so, like the Cardinal Pelagius who was also there, to urge the soldiers on against the Muslim enemy.  He was done with holy war!  Crossing the front lines with a companion, at enormous jeopardy to both of them, his mission rather was to seek an audience with Sultan Malik Al Kamil.  Now actually, I don’t believe that when he set out Francis was motivated, 800 years ahead of our time, by some progressive vision of interfaith dialogue.  But that is partly what makes what happened next so remarkable.  His dreams had, indeed, already changed at least once.  He no longer had a vision of military glory, fighting for the forces of God against the powers of darkness.  But I do believe that the dream with which he set out to Damietta was not the same as the vision with which he returned.  On setting out, either of two outcomes would have been OK for Francis.  The best, his first intention, would have been the conversion of the Sultan and his people.  The crusades would surely end when everyone had become Christian!  The second, a very real possibility, and one fulfilled in some of his brothers in Morocco the following year, would have been the spiritual glory of a martyr’s death.  But the Sultan was not converted.  And Francis was not martyred.  From the perspective of those dreams, the quest was a failure.

The historically attested story of the Sultan and the Saint was told in a 2016 film, screened last year on PBS and produced by the Unity Productions Foundation, a team of American Muslim scholars with those from other faith backgrounds.  It describes how the Sultan allowed Francis to preach freely, and how the two spent some days together.  One of those who speak in the film is Franciscan friar and historian Michael Cusato, who comments, ‘I believe… watching Muslims pray, men and women, five times daily… really struck Francis unexpectedly. I believe it profoundly moved him.’  Sister Kathleen Warren adds, ‘The respect they had for each other spoke volumes to Francis that this, indeed, was not an enemy, this was not a beast, but this was truly a brother.’

The siege, tragically, and to the disgust of Francis, continued after the meeting between the two men, with the Crusaders wiping out 80,000 people in Damietta, and the Sultan forced to retreat.  The balance of power was dramatically reversed later when the Crusaders found themselves bogged down in flood waters and mud, surrounded and starving.  The Sultan could have let them die, or sent his soldiers in for an easy kill, but instead he sent his enemies food, and feed for their animals.  Many lives were saved and both sides returned home.  What we know as the love and mercy of God revealed in Christ was not confined to just one of the men in this encounter.

I mentioned earlier that there are prayers and devotions written by Francis which are not well known.  I thought it beautiful when I realized that some of those prayers, and some of the particular devotions practiced by Franciscans and later by other Western Christians, show the clear possibility that they were influenced and inspired by the devotions and practices of Muslims observed by Francis in Egypt.

At a time when so many leaders in our public life seek to make political capital by stirring up our fears of those who may be different to ourselves, we need that discovery of the primary unity of all people as our sisters and brothers.  And all of us, throughout our lives, need to remain open to the challenge and invitation to have our dearest dreams radically transformed, and retransformed, as we learn to encounter ever more deeply the God of love revealed by Christ in unexpected people and unexpected places.

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