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Sunday, April 21
Easter Sunday 11a.m. Eucharist
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Wednesday, April 17
The Office of Tenebrae
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Sunday, April 21
Easter Sunday 11 a.m. Sermon
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus
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The Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus preached without the use of a manuscript.

Sunday, April 21
To an Unseeable Animal
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Easter Sunday Sermon
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“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk. 24).[1]

My friend Rick Fabian defines nostalgia as, “longing for a past that is not yours.”[2] He probably did not have this consciously in mind but it made me think of the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Nostalgia can be a powerful force, a way to use the past for our own purposes in the present.[3]

Johannes Hofer invented the word nostalgia in 1669. The Greek word nostos means to return home. Algos means pain. Nostalgia is the pain of returning home in our imagination. The word nostos also refers to a whole genre of Greek epic literature about heroes returning home by sea. Like Homer’s Odyssey it is not enough to return to a place, the challenge is to do this with one’s identity intact. When it comes to Easter how do we move beyond the longing for a past that is not our own?

On March 29, 1832 the twenty-eight year old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his wife Ellen. Before her death over a year earlier the couple had been deeply and joyfully in love. They traveled and wrote poetry together. They dreamed of the future until tuberculosis killed her two years after their wedding.[4]

Without her, Emerson’s life completely unraveled. His career was falling apart and he felt preoccupied with death. On that day in March he did something extraordinary. He opened his wife’s coffin. No one knows what he saw there. Emerson craved direct personal experience. He needed to see death for himself.

Perhaps his deeply religious aunt Mary Moody Emerson inspired him. In a letter she once wrote, “Did I not assure good Lincoln Riley… that I should be willing to have [my] limbs rot… if I could perceive more of God?”[5]

On this Feast of the Resurrection, when we desire to perceive more of God, I have three short chapters on memory, body and mystery.

  1. Memory. The women who go to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and spices are in such a different frame of mind than Emerson was. The shock of the escalating events must have hit them hard: from the cheering crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem to his arrest, trial, torture and death. At dawn in what the Greek calls the depth of the early morning they find the tomb door open and the body gone.

Suddenly two men in dazzling, shimmering, shining, flashing (astraptō) clothes appear. The women recoil in fear. The men ask, “why do you look for the living among the dead” (Lk. 24)? Then they say, “remember how he told you” that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, crucified and on the third day rise again?” The next line is what strikes me so deeply. “Then they remembered his words.” Easter is about a kind of remembering.

But how could they have forgotten in the first place? Jesus told his friends that terrible things were going to happen to him. I guess it was so much easier to not take that in, to get wrapped up in routines and habits, to think about other subjects, to argue about who is greater, or to dismiss what he said in one way or another. We do this too. We know things subconsciously that our rational self cannot face.

What might not be obvious when we read this story in English is how often the word memory occurs here. The Greek word for tomb is mnēma. That’s more like our English word “memorial” and that is what a grave is for isn’t it? To remember. The Greek word mimnēskomai means something less passive than our English word to remember. It is more like, “to bring past actions to bear on the present with new power and insight.”[6]

This kind of remembering means more than just passively thinking thoughts, it is to change our actions in the present. Easter brings us into the presence of God by showing us that we are God’s children, that nothing we have done or that happens to us can separate us from the love of Christ.

  1. Body. Bodies matter so much to Jesus and to his followers. In the last half-century bodies of people in industrialized societies have changed substantially. This fall the Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky spoke here at Grace Cathedral. He talked about how our bodies are flooded with levels and kinds of pleasure that humans in previous generations could never have imagined. In a Cathedral organ concert he noticed that in earlier generations this music would have been the loudest human made sound the people ever heard.

Today the food we eat, the drugs we use, the music we listen to, the images we see, the smell of soaps, etc. are all engineered to light up our brains. Drugs mean that we can experience dopamine levels a thousand times higher than any other human before. People these days have a hard time just walking safely around the city because their brains are constantly being stimulated through their earphones.

 

Sapolsky points out that these, “over-the-top non-natural sources of reward” inevitably leads to habitation and a sense of “pervasive emptiness.” He says, “Our frequent human tragedy is the more we consume, the hungrier we get.”[7]

In this hungry time we need bodily wisdom. When I say that I believe in the resurrection of the body I am saying two things simultaneously. First, that no matter how desperate things seem to be I trust God. Nothing truly good will be lost forever. I am also saying that despite evidence to the contrary I believe that the world God made, the world we experience as bodies, is good. Bodies matter to God.

Although today bodies and our anxieties about them are manipulated to sell products, to demean and to devalue, we can choose to treat bodies with reverence. This effort explains so much of what happens in this Cathedral. Together we kneel, stand, sit and through singing even breathe together. We are reminded that Jesus says, “this is my body” about the meal we share. In baptism our bodies are washed. At the peace we touch each other in love and hope. Together we are called the body of Christ. Through Christ God participates in the world. One day we believe our bodies will be gathered together in God.[8]

  1. Mystery. After their encounter at the tomb the women rush off to tell Jesus’ other friends. “And they did not believe them” (Lk. 24). Not believing amidst the chaos of ordinary life is normal. Belief is something that is different than knowledge. We all have moments of stronger and weaker faith. I love this story of Peter running to the grave. What did he think about as he went? He too sees the burial linens. The body is gone. He returns, “amazed at what had happened.”

Nothing about this seemed obvious or clear to the people who were there or to us. Most of God will always be mysterious. At the heart of our life is mystery. We just don’t often enough appreciate it.

On Monday night in the darkness of dusk I was walking by Signal Hill in the Presidio. On the west side of the path the Eucalyptus Trees were shaking in the onshore wind. On the left side of the path are the ancient and dying Cypress Trees making a kind of extraordinary natural cathedral nave.

Fifteen yards away a coyote stopped in the middle of the path to look at me and then sauntered along a side trail. I felt such an intense thrill of joy. This is how I felt last time I was surfing and a curious seal popped its head out of the water to inspect me. What are these beings thinking? The mystery is all around us and God is in it.

Wendell Berry wrote a poem called “To the Unseeable Animal.”

“Being, whose flesh dissolves / at our glance, knower /of the secret sums and measures, / you are always here, / dwelling in the oldest sycamores, / visiting the faithful springs / when they are dark and the foxes / have crept up to their edges. / I have come upon pools  / in streams, places overgrown / with the wood’s shadow, / where I knew you had rested, / watching the little fish / hang still in the flow; / as I approached they seemed / particles of your clear mind /disappearing among the rocks. / I have walked deep in the woods in the early morning, sure / that while I slept / your gaze passed over me.”

“That we do not know you / is your perfection / and our hope. The darkness / keeps us near to you.”[9]

Why do we look for the living among the dead? Especially when there is so much life all around us? I think it is because we long for a deeper perception of God and do not know where to begin.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had to see for himself. We don’t know what he experienced that day at his wife’s grave but we do know that it broke his self-destructive preoccupation with death. Within a year he was on a ship to meet his intellectual heroes in Europe and a reputation as an incurable optimist.

What hope is there for us on this treadmill of saturated sensation and the pervasive emptiness of habituation? We are not doomed to feel nostalgia for someone else’s past. Through Jesus we can return home to God.

 

This Easter is our own when we remember it through action as children of God. Easter is our own when we treat our bodies with reverence and become more compassionate about the bodies of others. Easter is our own when it enables us to really live in the present, so that we can enjoy the mystery of our origin and destination, the mystery of every being we encounter. Alleluia, Christ is risen!

[1] “Alleluia Christ is risen! Alleluia, Christ is risen!”

[2] Richard Fabian, “The Vicar of Bray or, Anglican Identity at Prayer.” Unpublished book chapter, 5 March 2019 Draft. Page 1.

[3] So much of today’s nostalgia seems employed to unsettle and exclude our neighbors – whose America, whose past are we talking about?

[4] Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1995) 3-5.

[5] “Did I not assure good Lincoln Riley, long since, that I should be willing to have limbs rot, and senses dug out, if I could perceive more of God? Ibid., 4.

[6] Matt Boulton, “Dawn: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter Sunday,” SALT, 16 April 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/4/16/dawn-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-sunday

[7] Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (NY: Penguin, 2017) 69.

[8] Stephanie Paulsell, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (NY: Jossey-Bass, 2002).

[9] Wendell Berry, “To An Unseeable Animal,” from Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry ed. David Impastato (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997) 135-6.

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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, April 7
Extravagant Love, Intelligent Bodies
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

What did Mary of Bethany see? What did she recognize in her friend Jesus as the house “filled with the fragrance of perfume” (Jn. 12)? The Puritans used to preach sermons with three parts. These were: Scripture, Doctrine (or a church teaching) and a study of how we apply this knowledge in our life. This morning I am using the same three parts.

  1. Scripture. All four biblical gospels include the story of Mary’s extravagant love. At the end Mark adds, “Truly I tell you wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mk. 14). And Jesus was right.

This act captures our imagination. It moves us. It shows us Jesus. It reminds us of the importance of extravagant generosity in our life that makes holy places like this Cathedral possible. The Love Window on the South Aisle includes one of the most beautiful female images I know of and shows Mary drying Jesus’ feet with her hair.[1]

The story begins outside the frame of this reading. John writes, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (Jn. 11). In the shadow of this danger Jesus visits the house of his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

As Martha serves them, Mary astonishes everyone by anointing Jesus’ feet with oil that costs a full year’s wages. If this were not enough she then wipes his feet with her hair. The Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke call her a sinner. In all the gospels the men around Jesus denounce her with talk about how the money should go to the poor. But Jesus defends her extravagant love.

The philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) writes about the ordination rituals of Moses. These involve washing the feet of a priest. He writes, “Now by the washing of the feet the walking is no longer on earth… For the soul of the lover of God is towards truth leaping upwards towards heaven… joining in the dance with the sun and moon and the all-holy, all-harmonious host of the other stars.”[2]

Mary anointed Jesus as a kind of priest and king. She could see two truths which should have been obvious to everyone but weren’t. First, because she really hears Jesus she understands something his male friends simply cannot face. She knows that Jesus, the one who changed her life, the one she loves so deeply, is going to his death in Jerusalem. Have you ever been with someone who you knew would soon be dead? She sees this purpose in their shared meal.

Second, she understands the importance of honoring human bodies, particularly the body of Jesus. What we say with our bodies is usually far more powerful than what we express in mere words.

  1. Doctrine. Although most Christians say they believe in the resurrection of the body, a lot of other extraneous pictures have confused what this means. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) believed that we all have an immortal soul that exists before our body came into being and continues after we die. In Phaedrus, Plato describes this soul as Reason or a kind of chariot driver not so successfully trying to control two winged horses (one of which has a moral nature and the other is our unruly desire).

The French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) lived during a time of unparalleled religious conflict.[3] Scholars estimate that up to three-fifths of Germany’s sixteen million people were killed during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).[4] Descartes wanted to find a basis for religion that would be universal and available to everyone as opposed to appeals based on tradition, scripture or earthly authority.

And so he famously sat by a fire and began by imagining that he could doubt almost everything.[5] He could imagine his senses deceiving him about what the world was like. He doubted even about having a body. But he knew that doubting had to stop somewhere – for him it was with the part of us that makes these decisions. He writes famously, “Cogito ego sum,” “I think therefore I am.”

That “I” was the basis for all of his reasoning. It led him to regard the world as composed of two kinds of things: what we might call body and mind, the physical and the spiritual. Descartes believed that only human beings have this spirit, that the rest of the world is effectively dead. Although animals seem to have feelings and emotions, Descartes regarded them as nothing more than machines.

This dualism, this division between the material and the spiritual is not the Christian picture but it has a profound hold on how we experience the world and even our own bodies. I believe it leads us to mistreat other species, to be insensitive to the effect of our actions on the natural world. Instead of “being” a body it makes us talk about “having” a body as if we could do without it.

The idea that we could just download our consciousness onto a machine or the fantasy of a singularity when machines advance beyond human beings and effectively take over the planet, come from this picture of a disembodied human essence (of having intelligence without a body).[6] For me believing in the resurrection of the body as opposed to an immortal soul, means taking seriously how we treat other bodies and the natural world. It is a way that we fully realize the extraordinary uniqueness of every life.

We cannot separate body from mind. My former teacher Margaret Miles writes that we are intelligent bodies.[7] She is right. I was surprised that when I started coaching my son’s basketball team, my body remembered perfectly how to shoot a jump shot from the top of the key. This is true of casting with a fly-fishing rod, playing the harmonica or clarinet, catching a baseball, cross-country skiing, or singing the doxology. We say, “it’s just like riding a bike” to describe the uncanny way our whole self remembers practical, physical things.[8]

We respond to bodies. A newspaper article this week referred to a 2017 study.[9] 110 people were selected and exposed to electric shocks while being connected to an MRI machine. One group of subjects held hands with a spouse, lover or friend. Another group held the hand of a stranger, and the last group were shocked by themselves.

It turns out that holding hands with your spouse significantly reduces the physiological stress of the shock. Holding hands with a stranger has no effect. Our intelligent bodies know who is close to us.

  1. Application. Faith is not something that just happens in your head. We experience it with our whole selves. Each person is unique. We can be put into groups and categories but these will never perfectly fit us. We are bodies who have been given the chance to care for others.

Yesterday we had eight hundred faithful people here for the last Why Christian conference. My friend Cameron gave a presentation that just rocked me. I was the pastor of Cameron’s family church while he was in college. We stayed loosely in touch as he followed exactly in my path through the same seminary, doctoral program and then ordination in the Episcopal Church.

Cameron spoke about his experience as a trans person in the church. He talked about making the transition during the ordination process, about his bishop Tom Shaw who asked him to, “Be patient with me as I learn.” He talked about discerning, “how might God be calling me to embody my gender.” Although being trans has put him in danger, he talked about the way he feels God walking with him.

Cameron quoted the First Letter of John, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 Jn. 3:2). I knew all the pieces of the story before he began, but when I saw his vulnerability, his courage and his faith it almost moved me to tears.

On Friday Nadia Bolz-Weber told me a story about a woman who came to another one of these conferences. She had been a conservatory musician but the further she advanced as a trombone player the more conflict she experienced with her teachers. She played music moving her whole body and they wanted her to stand still.

One day the professor came up behind her stood on her heels, put his hands on her shoulders and literally weighed her down. Although she said that she had loved making music that was the last day she ever played the trombone.

That night Nadia searched the whole town to find a trombone. In the middle of the service the next day in front of hundreds of people Nadia presented it to her and asked her if she would like to play again. The woman played Amazing Grace. He whole body swayed and the room echoed and swam in the beauty of her music.

What did Mary of Bethany see? She really saw the person she loved. She saw Jesus and the power of the human body. God is calling us to real resurrection right now, not just to believe in our heads, but to live our faith with our whole selves, with our unique desires, with our particular way of building up the people around us.

So leap upwards. Hold hands. Dance with the sun and moon. Make music with your whole body. Let this house be filled with the fragrance of perfume as God blesses us now and in the life to come.

[1] This window includes images from three different Mary’s as if they were all the same person (Mary Magdalene). Michael Lampen, Cathedral Sourcebook (San Francisco: Grace Cathedral, 2005) 19.

[2] Philo, de Specialibus Legibus I, 207. Translated and cited in Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 288.

[3] 5 Lent (4-10-11) A.

[4] The conflict involved Germany, Bohemia, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and France. Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 325.

[5] René Descartes, Discourse on Method.

[6] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (NY: Penguin, 2005).

[7] Margaret Miles gets this language from Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Corporeal Turn, 20. See Margaret Ruth Miles, Recollections and Reconsiderations (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018) 18.

[8] 5 Lent (4-10-11) A.

[9] Benedict Carey, “Beyond Biden: How Close Is Too Close?” The New York Times, 4 April 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/04/health/psychology-metoo-biden.html

Sunday, March 31
Donald Trump, the Prodigal Son
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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“We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15).

 

Have you ever wondered how Jesus has changed you from what you might otherwise have been?

In case you have not noticed by now, I am an older brother. This is more important for understanding me than knowing where I grew up or went to college, my Myers-Briggs score, zodiac sign or what I own. It matters more than almost anything else about me. I am that oldest brother all the way down to the invisible depths of my soul.

Parents dream that their children will love, protect and care for each other.[1] We hope that long after we have left this earth they will be the best of friends. They will be the only ones who remember the ordinary days that we shared together as a family, the way that we all laughed together at bath time, or our family visits to Santa Cruz in the spring. But this is not possible unless older siblings and younger ones understand themselves and how they are related to God.

There is so much about younger siblings that I admire. So often they seem so independent and unencumbered. They appear to be so much more free of the burden that I always felt to be pleasing my parents.[2]

As the older one, I felt proud that my brother Andrew admired me. Growing up I always thought I should be teaching him something. One spring day, I taught him how to tackle people – by repeatedly tackling him. I still long for those days in high school and college when we used to come home from rugby practice together talking about our days.

But the relationship was more complex than this implies. I’ll never forget one hot July morning when we were in elementary school. Before anyone else woke up my brother went out to our vegetable garden and pulled up all the squash plants and stomped on them. Oh, I’ll never forget that stern tone of righteous indignation in my voice. “Andrew what have you done!”

All the while in my heart I was rejoicing. Where do we get the primal sense that if our parents are mad at our sibling, then they will love us more? If only I had known then that my brother was destined to become a vegetarian. See I’m still doing it, all these years later!

The Bible says so much about the relationship between siblings and what this means for God. The Bible seems pretty realistic when it comes to brothers. It gives us a very mixed picture of this relationship. Biblical brothers compete for attention and fight, they also cooperate and forgive each other.

The tension between the first set of brothers rises to the point that Cain kills Abel. Crafty Jacob with his mother’s help cheats his brother Esau out of their father Isaac’s blessing. Joseph’s brothers resent their father’s favorite son so much that they leave him in a ditch to die. The good news is that both Jacob and Joseph eventually become reconciled with their brothers. Despite terrible differences, faith in God makes it possible for them to cross the bridge of understanding.[3]

In the New Testament Simon and Andrew, James and John represent the ultimate example of cooperating brothers. None of the gospels mentions conflict between them. Knowing what I do about families and the unreliability of disciples, I think that this might be the greatest miracle Jesus performs.

When the religious leaders complain that Jesus spends his time with the sinners, rule-breakers and outlaws he proposes a fundamentally different philosophy of life. He does this through three stories about God’s love. He describes the effort God takes to seek out the lost. God is like a woman looking for a coin, or a shepherd seeking a sheep. Then he tells one of the most important stories in the Bible, the Prodigal Son.

Jesus talks about the mysterious God through an example that we understand – family life. But we often misinterpret this story. It begins abruptly. The younger brother seems to be saying to the father, “You are dead to me now. I want my share of the inheritance so that I can move to the Near Eastern equivalent of Las Vegas.” And that’s what he does. He burns through the money quickly with adult film stars. Then in order to stay alive he lives in shame among unclean animals as a pig keeper.

I don’t believe that we are supposed to see ourselves as this younger brother. This may sound controversial, but for me the younger brother is similar to how San Francisco liberals picture Donald Trump. At no point does the younger brother repent. He never accepts that he has done anything wrong. Because of bad choices his life just becomes unbearable and so he goes looking for a more regular meal. The younger brother rehearses the story that he hopes will convince his father to take him in, but he doesn’t believe it himself.[4]

The father sees him at a distance because in one way or other he has been looking for his son ever since he left. I tell my daughter that a father will do any embarrassing thing just to get his child to smile. And in this spirit, the father doesn’t care at all about what people think of him. With no dignity, just sheer joy he hikes up his robes and goes off running to meet his child. Before the younger son can say his rehearsed speech the father has embraced him with unconditional acceptance.

Later we realize that the older brother cannot stand this. He thinks that his father has been deceived. He understands that nothing has changed in his brother’s heart at all, that the whole repentance is a con. So he skulks outside and refuses to go into the party. He confronts the father with such bitterness. “You never gave me a party.” But my brother, “devoured your property with prostitutes,” while I have been working like a slave for you.

This older brother is like the religious leaders of the day. They see through the kind of people who flock to Jesus, the scammers, frauds, liars and manipulators. They think Jesus does not know what they are like because they share an assumption with the older brother. They think repentance works like this: First, a person has to change his or her ways and then say sorry. If this is convincing enough the offended person might grant them forgiveness.

What the religious leaders, and for that matter we ourselves, fail to recognize is that Jesus has a completely different philosophy. Jesus points out that by its nature mercy is not fair. Like love or joy, it exists on a higher plane. It is above fairness.[5] God is like the father who loves so deeply that he ceases to care about how he looks, his reputation or just about anything else. God simply loves. We have been loved into existence.

For Jesus who welcomed deceivers and thieves, and for God, grace does not come after repentance. Grace makes repentance possible. God invites everyone who feels offended by the others who have been called. God says to us, “Celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Lk. 15).

I heard a story this week about a woman’s relationship with her father. She said that when she was growing up there was always one occasion when she felt especially close to her dad. During family parties with all of her aunts, uncles and cousins there would usually come a time when someone would start playing polka records. After awhile they would play the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Every time they did this, her father would come up to her, tap her shoulder and say, “I do believe this is our dance.” She had the fondest memories of how they would whirl across the floor.[6]

At one of these family parties she was a teenager and in attendance against her will. She was in a dark teenage mood. When the “Beer Barrel Polka” started to play, her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, “I do believe this is our dance.” She glared at him and said, “Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!” He turned away and never asked her to dance again.

Through high school the woman loved to go out to parties. She would come back home so late and it infuriated her that her sleepy father would be sitting on the couch in an old plaid bathrobe. Disdainfully she would say, “what are you doing?” And he would say, “I was just waiting for you.”

The woman was glad to move out of the house to attend a distant college. For years she didn’t even call, but over time she began to miss her father. When a new job brought her closer to home, she actually decided to go to one of those family parties. As you might expect someone put on the “Beer Barrel Polka.” She drew a deep breath, walked over to her father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I do believe this is our dance.” He turned to her and said, “I was just waiting for you.”

I am the older brother. But Jesus has changed me from what I otherwise would have been. He has helped me to more often let go and to exist on that plane that is above fairness and keeping score. Jesus has helped me to see that the wildly irrational love I have for my children lies at the heart of all things.

 

God is just waiting for us. God says, “everything that I have is yours. Come into the party. Your sins and your accomplishments are less important than my love.”

[1] At the ages of five and three at Christmas time our pot-bellied children put bubbles on their faces and in the deepest voice they were capable of they would to us, “Ho, Ho, Ho. What do you want for Christmas?” Our answer was always the same. “We want our children to be nice to each other.” At that point they would hold out a handful of bubbles and say, “Here is your children being nice to each other.”

[2] I believe this makes my brother even more creative, more bold about taking risks than he otherwise would have been. When I was seven we moved to the city. My parents still laugh about my brother striding up to our neighbor and saying, “Hi my name is Malcolm and I’m seven.” “That’s my brother Andrew, he’s only four.”

[3] When Joseph’s brothers realize that he has become ruler of Egypt, the Bible says “they could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence” (Gen. 45). They expected revenge not love. Joseph completely lets them off the hook. He says God was the one who sent him into slavery, so that their family could be saved. Joseph believes so strongly that God is present when brothers meet each other in love. He is right. But it is difficult to stop being an older or younger brother.

[4] Much of this interpretation of the Prodigal Son comes from Matt and Liz Boulton, “Lost and Found: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on 4 Lent,” SALT, 26 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/26/lost-and-found-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-4

[5] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Lost and Found: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary on 4 Lent,” SALT, 26 March 2019.

[6] Thomas Long, “Is There Joy in God’s House?” Day1, 21 March 2004. http://day1.org/471-is_there_joy_in_gods_house

Sunday, March 24
What Cannot Love You Back
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt" (Ex. 3)?
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“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex. 3)?

 

Never give your whole self to someone or something that cannot love you back. A couple of weeks ago standing in line for the ODC/Volti Path of Miracles performance I struck up a conversation with a group of visitors to the Cathedral. We talked for quite a while and afterwards the older woman said with a knowing smile, “I bet you’re the youth minister here!”

I could not have been more pleased. I love talking to young people. More than adults they seem ready to veer out of the realm of the superficial into the profound. When you say, “never give your whole self to someone or something that cannot love you back,” they know that we’re talking about much more than just boyfriends and girlfriends. This has to do with money, reputation, identity, work, popularity, security, even how we read the news.[1] Do you belong to God or to the New York Times, to Jesus or the Democratic Party, to the Holy Spirit or your boss at work?

So much is asked of us. We live with the constant temptation to treat the wrong things as our gods, to act as if the purpose of our life is to merely pamper our own ego. Isn’t that what most people mean when they say that all they want is to be happy?

The theologian James Allison writes that although it may seem counterintuitive Lent is primarily about abundance.[2] Most people associate it with renunciation. People ask, “what are you giving up?” But the purpose of a Lenten discipline is to more fully receive God’s gift of life, to abide in God’s joy through gratitude.

We have a difficult time imagining how something can come from nothing but that is what God does. Scarcity has no meaning to God. And yet for us it is everything. This unquestioned assumption that there is not enough money, not enough respect, not enough love – threatens to kill us, or worse to dull us so that we are never really alive.

We could do something about this but somehow we don’t get around to it. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus talks at length about this problem. Giving our whole self to God, living joyfully with a constant sense of God’s abundance comes through what he calls metanoia. This Greek word means to change our mind, our soul, who we have come to be. We translate it as repentance, but it is not so much about correcting one mistake as it is about a whole new way of living.

To a crowd of thousands Jesus strains to express the terrible urgency of repentance. Because it is personal and about us, because we do not want to change – we find it very hard to hear. So in order to wake us up Jesus uses a rhetorical strategy of flooding us with a score of different images and metaphors. He seems to be saying, “it’s like this, or this, or if that won’t work for you try this.”[3]

He says repentance is urgent because nothing will remain secret. What we thought would remain unspoken will be shouted from the rooftops (Lk. 12). He says do not be afraid of people who kill the body but of losing your spiritual life. God knows even the number of hairs on our heads. Do not worry about the scarcity of food and drink because God cares for the ravens, the grass, and the lilies of the field.

Then Jesus tries this. He tells the story of a self-satisfied rich man who contemplates building a new barn. This man says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.” He seems to have it made but he dies that night in spiritual poverty.

Or think of it like this: we are servants of God who need to keep awake with our lamps lit so that we will be ready when our master comes at an unexpected time, like a thief in the night. Or, like this: we are walking to court with our accuser to meet a judge who could imprison us for the rest of our lives. Wouldn’t it make sense to work out an arrangement between us rather than to take this risk?

The Galileans killed in the temple and the Tower of Siloam that fell killing eighteen people are near the culmination of this flood of images about the urgency of repentance. Those people did not die because they were sinners but something far worse will happen if we do not change our ways.

Finally Jesus says it. The truth. Our life is a fig tree. The owner wants to pluck it out because it has borne no fruit, but the gardener wants to give it just one more year to see what we might achieve. We do not have forever to start living fruitfully.

The point of these provocative, staccato images is not to get stuck in philosophical questions like who is the owner or judge, or what do the barn and lilies of the field stand for. The point is to follow the path that Jesus describes in all these stories, to urgently repent with our whole lives.

We need to live with integrity so that we are unafraid of what would happen when our secrets are shouted from the rooftops. We must become more concerned with justice and righteousness rather than just endlessly and selfishly accumulating wealth. We need to be always ready with our lamps burning to do God’s good work. We should be so alert for opportunities to be reconciled that we are acting as if our freedom and very life depends on it.

These stories come from this world. They are not about God magically striking people down through the hand of a tyrant or in an accident. Last week I spoke at length about never using someone else’s suffering to craft a story to make ourselves feel better. God does not afflict other people with pain in order to get our attention.

When we meet someone who is urgently repenting we see it. Today’s Forum guest Earl Smith grew up on the rough side of the tracks in Stockton, California.[4] At times his mother treated him cruelly. Perhaps because of this, or to get attention, or because their weren’t many opportunities for a young African American man, he began to get into trouble.

First, he stole little things. Then he sold drugs. By the time he was nineteen he lived a double life as a normal college student and as the leader of a network of gang members. He was intimidating and harming innocent people.

At the age of nineteen one of his drug dealers who owed him money came to the door with another young man. The gun Smith usually kept with him was still in his golf bag in the closet but he let the two of them in. For the sake of a few hundred dollars his guests shot him six times. He writes about what it feels like to be shot. It’s like having hot pokers driven into your body.

As Smith hovered near death in the hospital he heard the voice of God. It said, “You are not going to die… You’re going to be the chaplain at San Quentin Prison.” It does not seem to me that a calling could get any clearer than that and yet the remarkable thing is that for a while he did nothing about it. Perhaps he felt like he had all the time in the world.

But God was pursuing him and he could not resist for long. Eventually he became a chaplain at San Quentin. During his first Christmas there he was delivering Christmas cards for inmates to send home.

The prison was entirely segregated by race and gang affiliation. When he got to cell 66 the inmate was leaning against the door gripping the bars. Smith’s stomach dropped and he broke out in a cold sweat. He said to the inmate, “What’s your name?” Then suddenly the man recognized him and jumped away from the bars. It was the man who had shot him six times.

Although eight years had passed and Smith knew that in order to be healed he had to forgive him, Smith had not been able to do it. He slid the stack of Christmas cards between the bars of the one who had come so close to ending his life. As he walked down the cellblock he wept.

Smith continued his task and after forty more cells he turned around and went back. Part of him wanted to just terrorize the man but when he got there he knew exactly what to say. In a low voice that no one else could hear he said, “Hey, I want to thank you for shooting me. God used you to get to me.” Although these were the hardest words he had ever spoken he felt released, freed from hating this other man.[5]

 

We sometimes forget that Moses was a murderer and a humiliated fugitive. He only survived by tending sheep for his father-in-law in a distant land. When God appeared to him in the burning bush, he could not believe what he was being asked to do. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh” (Ex. 3)? We call this a theophany, a moment when God appears to us.

 

It is true that what cannot love us back has a strange kind of hold on us. But we can be free. God did not just speak to Earl Smith or Moses. God is talking to us too. Jesus uses dozens of images about rich men, rooftops, servants, barns, judges, lilies, towers and fig trees. He is trying to convince us that right now is the time to change our lives, to repent.

 

Who will we belong to? What fruit will our lives bear? May this Lent confirm our faith in the abundance of God, the one who creates everything out of nothing and brings us home through his son Jesus.

[1] “[N]ever give the best of yourself to someone or something that cannot love you back.” Emily C. Heath, “Living by the Word – Third Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9,” The Christian Century, 9 February 2016. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/february-28-third-sunday-lent

[2] James Alison, “Living by the Word – Sunday, Marcy 3, 2013: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9,” The Christian Century, 19 February 2013. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-01/sunday-march-3-2013

[3] Matt and Liz Boulton, “Life and Death: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 3,” SALT, 20 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/20/life-and-death-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-3

[4] Earl Smith with Mark Schlabach, Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable Stories from America’s Most Notorious Prison (NY: Howard Books, 2015).

[5] Ibid., 63-7.

Sunday, March 17
The City that Kills the Prophets
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" (Luke 13).
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St. Patrick died just over fifteen hundred years ago today. Born in Britain, as a young man he was captured by raiders and first arrived in Ireland as a slave (for the druid priest in Slemish).[1] After six years a dream inspired him to escape and he went home. Later he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and a bishop. The Celtic style of Christianity matters here and you can see him in the nave stained glass window closest to the north transept.

Patrick carried a staff of ash wood and preached wherever he went. He would drive the stick in the ground upright and just start talking. At Aspatria he preached for such a long time that when he finished, he couldn’t pull the stick out of the ground. It had sprouted roots and grew there.[2]

For me the miracle was not that he could talk that long but that anyone would stay around to listen. There is no preaching without a congregation and I’ve been worried that talking about the news this week might make you want to get up and leave. So many horrible things happened that we just want to forget.

The people of the United Kingdom failed to agree about leaving the European Union. The president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud and conspiracy against the United States (in his work representing pro-Russian foreign interests). He received a mild sentence totaling seven and a half years.[3]

A family from my daughter’s high school paid a consultant who photo-shopped a picture of their child’s face onto an athlete’s body in order to get her accepted at the University of Southern California. The long-term former soccer coach at my son’s college received bribes so that he would fraudulently admit students.

By far the worst of all was Friday when 50 people were shot to death and more than 40 others were wounded at two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand. Our brothers and sisters were worshipping God when a white supremacist rushed in and killed them. In human history we have never experienced a tragedy quite like this. The shooter filmed and broadcast this murder in real time to get attention on the social media that had done so much to inflame his hatred.[4]

People ask Jesus why tragedies like this happen. In the beginning of Luke’s thirteenth chapter Jesus is on the road to the Temple in Jerusalem. The people refer to a strikingly similar incident in which Pilate murdered visitors from Galilee while they were worshiping in the Temple.

Perhaps the crowds want to know if this was a sign from God, perhaps they wondered if it signaled a future divine retribution. Jesus answers that we should never use the suffering of others for our own purposes. We should not ask if they deserved it or if constitutes some kind of message (as if God were merely using other people’s lives to get our attention). Instead we should take all suffering as a reminder to repent, to make ourselves right with God.

Jesus goes on with another example. He says that the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. “Do you think that they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did” (Lk. 13). Every natural disaster or illness or act of violence should inspire us with greater reverence for all life. These horrifying events should remind us how precious our existence is. They should always motivate us to deeper love for others and God.

Jesus continues his journey toward the Temple and the story goes on. The Pharisees, the most faithful people in his society, warn him to get away. They say that Herod wants to kill him. But Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem and nothing will deter him. He says, “tell that fox… I am casting out demons and performing cures.”

Then in a moment of deep emotional power he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” The city, that place of unique human culture and violence, elicits Jesus’ profound affection. It draws him not just to his death, but to his resurrection.

Human beings and cities evolved together. At some point in history agriculture made it possible for a few people in society to work at something other than gathering food. From the very beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Asia and the New World, cities were defined by the concentration of wealth. This made possible the flourishing of human culture. The cities were the home of the market, the garrison and the temple, of kings, generals and priests. The history of the city is the history of the lordship of one human being over others. It is the story of power and inequality.[5]

The oldest city excavation in Palestine is at the biblical city of Jericho (Tell es-Sultan). It was founded between 10,000 and 9000 years ago, more than six thousand years before the first books of the Bible were written. Archaeologists discovered that the defensive walls were built before the people there had been introduced to pottery. It almost makes one ashamed to be human. We learned to build walls to protect our wealth before we learned to make bowls and jars to preserve it.[6]

One could read the Bible as the story of the city. From the beginning God seems opposed to the concentration of human power and the oppression to which this leads. God confuses human languages at Babel and washes away the cities of the earth in the time of Noah. God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our faith all started with a rich nomadic herdsman named Abram. In the hill country of Cana, God asked him to “look toward heaven and count the stars… So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15). From that point on, the people of God suffered at the hands of the centralized power represented by the city, but they also undermined that force.

 

At a primal level, there almost seems to be a choice that we have to make between our freedom, and access to the wealth of the city. Joseph and his brothers had to decide. They went down to the Pharaoh’s city in Egypt to avoid starvation and their children lost their freedom. When the Hebrews escaped Egypt and gained their liberty in the desert, they constantly complained because they missed Egypt’s wealth.[7]

 

Jerusalem became a political and religious center. Throughout the monarchy the authors of the Bible write mostly about two experiences of this city. They point out first, the injustices committed by the powerful against their own people. Second, they describe the impending threat of Ninevah and Babylon, the human cities and powers that were even greater than those in the Holy Land. (To put this into perspective, Ninevah was a city of 1,720 acres. Jersualem covered only 33 acres).[8] The prophets speaking on God’s behalf are slaughtered in the very city that they seek to warn. To make matters worse, the prophets end up being right. When the Hebrew people put their trust in the city instead of God, invaders from larger cities over-run it.

Today’s Gospel continues this story of the city. Jesus is a rural Galilean on the road to a place where human inequality thrives – Jerusalem. In the city, people have the strongest beliefs in the stories that justify political, economic and religious inequity. Jesus goes to reveal the truth – that God loves every person without exception.

Over the passage of centuries the dynamics of human social life have not changed so much. When we stop looking for ways to condemn others, this week’s news becomes especially horrifying because we recognize our darker self in these stories. Our false philosophy of scarcity and our habit of regarding a person’s identity as more important than her humanity cause real harm.

The Manafort sentencing reminds us how far we have to go to achieve equal justice. The Brexit debates show our desire to tighten the circle of our concern, to ignore the stranger and care for only those who are close to us. The college cheating scandal exposes another effect of living in an ungenerous and increasingly unequal society (exacerbated by tax, education and healthcare policies that shrink the middle class). Our anxiety about falling into poverty makes us more likely to always put ourselves first and to cheat.

None of us would consider murdering another person online. And yet we hold onto racism, prejudice and judgment in our hearts. We are part of the bigotry we see around us. It is a rare person these days who has not in some way bent or stretched the truth on the internet, who has not manipulated reality for their own purposes.

Two nights ago I dreamed that I was preaching in a massive ornate English Cathedral. At first I kept worrying that I didn’t have a stole. Then they asked me to split my sermon up and to preach multiple times in the service. Then I lost my notes… Finally someone pointed out that I was sitting in the queen’s chair. I don’t know why I was so afraid of getting this wrong. Perhaps it is especially difficult to talk about inequality and bigotry because I have personally benefited from these forces.

When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem what he is really doing is going into the heart of danger, into the place where human beings are at their worst. He moves without relenting into the pain and the darkness. He refuses to use any person’s suffering for his own purposes. He brings the light of resurrection. He gathers fragile little chicks like you and me under his wings so that we can live without fear. May this good gardener plant us like St. Patrick’s staff so that we might flourish with new life.

[1] Michael D. Lampen, Grace Cathedral Source Book (San Francisco: Grace Cathedral, 2019).

[2] Matt and Liz Boulton, “A Brief Theology of St. Patrick’s Day, SALT 12 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/12/a-brief-theology-of-st-patricks-day

[3] https://www.vox.com/2019/3/13/18264011/paul-manafort-mueller-sentence-amy-berman-jackson

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/15/world/australia/new-zealand-mosque-shooting.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage

[5] These five paragraphs about the city come from 2 Lent (3-7-04) C.

[6] Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.

[7] The Bible depicts the time of the Judges as a golden age. The Judges are not kings. They do not hold court in a capitol city. But the people beg God to give them a king so that they can be like other nations. When they ask for a human ruler, God fully understands what this means. He tells Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Samuel tells them that having a king means losing your sons to the king’s army, losing your daughters to the king’s service. “He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers “(1 Sam. 8).

[8] Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.

Sunday, March 10
Lent 1
Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Ellen Clark-King
Sermon from Sunday's 11 a.m. Eucharist
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Thursday, March 7
Should I Teach My Child about Sin?
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm C. Young
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“I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5).

 

Standing in line at the Dickens Christmas Fair Julia Scheeres’ 9-year-old daughter noticed a costumed group of Nineteenth century-style Temperance Marchers. They carried a sign that said, “Gin is sin.” She asked her mom, “What is sin?” Scheeres wrote a New York Times article about her own punishing fundamentalist childhood and why she was raising her own children without the idea of sin.[1]

I am so sympathetic to Scheeres. I feel badly about how adults made fear the center of her childhood. But I grew up in a completely different setting. While her church was demanding what she should think. When it came to the details the adults in my California church seemed cagey about saying what they believed. It was simple. My church taught me that God loved every person unconditionally, without exception. They constantly reminded me that in Paul’s words, “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom. 8).

My question this evening is why we should teach our children about sin. Before beginning I should acknowledge that Julia Scheeres and I probably disagree on what sin is. She describes a picture of a condemning God on the alert to find any mistake in order to condemn you. For her it is an identity marker of who is in and who is out.

I’m in the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1971) camp. He writes, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”[2] From the way people treat each other the existence of sin is obvious to me. The definition of the Greek word for sin (hamartia) is, “missing the mark.” If your goals are challenging enough this is inevitable. All people sin.

Apart from the fact that sin is the way that the world is, we teach people about sin for three reasons. First, the idea of sin allows to primarily respond to the world in gratitude. Creating the world God pauses every day to declare each thing good (Genesis 1). Sin helps us to understand why we see so much suffering in a world that at its heart is good.

Second, the idea of sin makes it possible for us to recognize the sacredness of human freedom. We can decide to act in a way that is fundamentally against our own self-interest. Jesus died for us and we too can give our lives away for something good.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant regarded this ability to act freely as a kind of miracle. He writes, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”[3]

The last reason I believe in talking about sin is a pastoral one. The idea of sin as missing the mark gives us a chance to seek and find forgiveness. It opens the door out of the cage of our past. What we did in our worse moment does not need to define who we are forever. God is bigger than our most disastrous action.

Perhaps all this boils down to a choice we all have to make. Either we treat the church as a collection of pure and holy people or we regard it as school for sinners.[4] On this matter to me it is clear where Jesus stands.

The opponents of Jesus repeatedly condemned him for spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. For us the presence of sinners at worship is a sign that our communion services really are of God. It shows that this really is God’s work.

Jesus didn’t invent the idea of sin or sinners but through his teaching and his life he has changed it. We are sinners together and Jesus invites us to eat and drink with him.

 

[1] The author goes on to talk about taking her children on their own marches. Not in favor of temperance but for racial justice and women’s rights. Julia Scheeres. “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin” The New York Times, 25 January 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/well/family/raising-children-without-the-concept-of-sin.html

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence. (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965) 24.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason tr. Lewis White Beck (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1993) 169.

[4] Margaret Miles, History of Christian Thought lecture notes.

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